At The Coal Face of Insurance Analytics

Ladies and Gentlemen, welcome to the coal face of insurance analytics.

Today’s guest is Jim Weiss, the director of analytic solutions for ISO. ISO houses perhaps the richest insurance data repository on the planet and among Jim’s responsibilities is building models that don’t use it! I joke.. Actually, Jim is exploring new frontiers of modeling for insurance purposes. This episode works very well in conjunction with the Cathy O’Neil episode which of course I recommend you listen to right away!

Right out of the gates Jim discusses his view on whether big data in insurance is overrated or underrated:

Jim Weiss: I think if you were gonna write a history of big data in insurance ending today, I would probably have to say that maybe big data in insurance is a little bit overrated. If you look at our industry in recent years, I think it’s kind of a graveyward of big data and analytics type projects that went overbudget overdeadline. I think there were a lot of factors contributing to that, but they can largely be characterized as maybe we’re not doing these projects very well but moreover we’re not picking these projects very well.

Jim on proxies:

Jim Weiss: I feel it’s very difficult to identify something to predict risk behavior that isn’t a proxy unless you’re doing individual risk rating. Unless you’re using something like prior claims to predict future claims, what variable isn’t proxy-ing for something? [From there we talk about my own history as a teenage driver (not great)!]

Jim on how good we are at what we do:

Jim Weiss: Myself and a colleague did a study of some rate level reviews that had been conducted in our industry over the past several years to see how many of them reversed themselves over one or two years.

David Wright: change signs.

Jim Weiss: Not even change signs, substantially reverse themselves. So you have a plus five rate percent rate indication. You notify your agents, you put it in your systems, you sent out hte policy holder notices. you tell the regulators you do eerything you ahve to do. you spenda ll that money, time and effort. then one or two years later. boom, negative five. Completely reversed…

Luckily in the study we did, the majority of the time at the time the rate level indications didn’t reverse themselves within one or two years. It did happen a little bit more often than perhaps I would think.

DW: why do you think that would have happened.

JW: because, Yogi Berra has an expression that making predictions is hard, especially about he future. Ther are so manythings you don’t know at the time you make the analysis.

Finally, in my favorite part of a conversation full of big insightful moments, we discuss whether and how to use complex modeling (and what on earth is modeling for?!):

Jim Weiss: I think, to some degree, applying the smell test to the types of variables you’re looking at, ‘is there some basis in reality’, can be a healthy thing, but I don’t htink it should be preclusive of exploring more complex approaches where prudent. But I’m not sure pricing is necessarily the prudent place for it. It may be but there are a lot of use cases for big data and analytics and sophisticated techniques in our industry which far transcend pricing.

and later..

Jim Weiss: the mix of complicated problem and complicated solution is a particularly problematic one… if you don’t really understand why exactly the approach you’re taking does solve that problem then how do you know it’s not a coincidence.

David Wright: I’m wondering what the objective is of modeling. So one characterization of the objective of modeling is to get an answer you can use. So I get a rate, or I get a loss estimate. I wonder if the real objective is to develop an understanding of the problem. Which is a human consumable… So the output isn’t the answer the output is the story.

This conversation was jam packed with fantastic stuff and the time we spent together flew by. Thanks to Jim for his time and the opportunity to learn! Subscribe in iTunes, stitcher, or by rss feed.


The Pestilence of US News

Every morning I get US News delivered to my door. It’s the only dead tree newspaper I’ve ever subscribed to in my life. Lest you begin to think this is some kind of endorsement, know that I never signed up for it, I don’t pay for it and I tried a couple of times to cancel the thing. It’s a pestilence.

When I say delivered to my door, I actually mean chucked out of a moving car onto the bottom of my driveway. This means that every day if I don’t pick the thing up and throw it out it will accumulate, rain or shine. When it snows we inevitably miss picking up a few and after the melt find a few soaked lumps of pulp we then  scrape into a garbage can.

But US News doesn’t care. They’re selling ads. It’s better thought of as an advertisement flier than a newspaper even though every day they publish news stories. And my routine has settled into a grim coexistence with this pest on my driveway. Each morning on my way to work I pick it up and at least get to muse at what headline they decided to put above the fold. It’s a kind of meta-curiosity for me: what is the world focused on today? Then, without even the courtesy of unfolding the thing, I casually toss it into the train station garbage as I jog to my 632am ride into town.

Today I opened it.

US News obviously noticed my haughty indifference and mutated to deliver its payload (advertisements) to its destination (my driveway) more efficiently. You know what doesn’t matter to US News, anymore? The news. Check out the front page:

US News Front Page Advertisement

I realize this kind of publicity is what they wanted but they can only abandon their journalistic integrity once (assuming this is the first time). Hope it paid well!

The Not Unprofessional Podcast


This episode is an experiment. Actuaries need to attest to having done 30 hours a year of continuing education and three of those need to be in what we call “professionalism” which can loosely be thought of as ethics for actuaries. Satisfying these is a pain so I thought I’d do something about it.

In this conversation with Don Mango, we discuss a series of cases (some listed below) that I thought might be interesting to interpret in the context of the actuarial code of conduct. Quite unexpectedly I had more fun with this one than maybe any of the previous interviews, which is saying quite a lot!

I won’t pretend this is for everyone but I suggest to give it a listen, even if only to hear our thoughts on Bitcoin, what a stock trader is to do if choosing between lying and screwing their client and many other examples (to actuaries: I promise it’s about actuaries!).

I’m also looking into a dedicated podcast for professionalism CE credits. If you’re interested, go to to sign up to a mailing list about that project.

Disclaimer: actuarial members, you of course need to use your own judgement on whether this podcast satisfies the CE guidelines. I’m counting it for mine, though!

The below are the cases we discuss with my own notes. Many ideas are shamelessly stolen from Matt Levine’s newsletter. If you don’t know Matt Levine drop everything and subscribe to his daily newsletter. It’s brilliant.

* Bitcoin (of course there’s a bitcoin section!)
Amazing article by Matt Levine describing the insanity that is Bitcoin. from 12/19/2017

Words lose their value in society. Things like ‘crazy’, ‘insane’, ‘madness’ get devalued because we use them for everyday things. Which brings me to Bitcoin. This shit is crazy.

It is hard to believe that anyone commits securities fraud anymore. Right now you can design an electronic token, say in big bold letters that the token is utterly useless, and raise $700 million selling it to people who “don’t think it’s fair reading into that language too tightly.” Why bother to scam anyone?

* what is advice?
from Matt Levine 1/3/18
One problem with making banks charge for research is: What is research? We talk from time to time about “desk commentary,” which is a thing where someone at a bank emails a client with a trade idea, but the person at the bank is not a “research analyst,” and the trade idea is not a “research report.” If you are in the business of regulating research — as U.S. regulators long have been, and as European regulators now are — then you have to distinguish a salesperson selling a trade idea from a research analyst selling research. That is not necessarily easy, as the ultimate goal of both salespeople’s emails and research analysts’ reports is, after all, to get clients to do trades. And in early going MiFID’s distinction might be crude:

“Solicitations from traders looking to pick up business from the buy side will drop significantly as the regulations stipulate that all research must be paid for. Money managers are even taking steps to block emails from those firms that have been dropped from their broker lists.”

It’s going to be weird if the only emails that money managers are allowed to receive are the ones that they pay for.

Isn’t this interesting context for assessment of an actuary’s work!

* Brokers enabling predation

From Matt Levine 12/14 email

DW: Brokers who tell clients that a large position is being liquidated. Bad, on the surface, but how can they drum up the liquidity? They need to say *something*! Shows that liquidators definitely get scrweed in this situation.

* Judge applying economic logic
Michael Dell took Dell private at 13.75 per share vs its stock price of 9.35. They were sued for the price being too low. And a judge agreed! Violates EMH massively and has all kinds of inconsistencies that led to the creation of EMH. This judge was out of his depth but would an actuary be if he were in such a chair?

DW: This is an exmaple of when a judge has applied his duty but it was clearly nuts! I wonder if that kind of thing happens to actuaries.

* how about when immoral activity hinges on intentions?
Matt Levine 11/15/2017

A fun thing to do, if you are a trader at a bank, is to trigger stops. If a customer has an order to sell a thing when it gets to 80 or below, and it is currently at 82, then you might consider selling the thing short to push down its price to 80. At 80, you know someone else will be selling, because you have a customer order to sell at 80. So you sell short at 82 and 81, and the stop triggers, and your customer pukes out her position at 80, and you go ahead and buy in your short at 80 or 79 or whatever, making a nice little profit.

This is fun but also obviously very much frowned upon. It is not good customer service: Your customer put in the stop order to limit her losses, and you went ahead and handed her exactly the losses she was worried about. It is probably — using even a reasonably narrow definition of the term — “front-running.” In the foreign exchange markets, it is forbidden by the FX Global Code (Principle 10). It’s probably illegal most places. But at least in theory, it might be hard to prove: Maybe you sold at 81 to lay off risk, or to accommodate customers, or because you foresaw the market moving against you. How can anyone prove that you did it to trigger stops?

The answer is usually “because you sent your colleagues dumb chat messages high-fiving about how you made so much money triggering stop orders,

* disclosing conflict. When is it ok to violate?
check this out:

Disclosure is often proposed as a solution to conflicts of interest, but research finds that disclosure is often ineffective. Years of research on the ?anchoring bias? (Tversky & Kahneman, 1974) suggest that once bad advice is let out of the bag, its impact on judgment is difficult to undo. Indeed, disclosure may even have perverse effects and can sometimes make matters worse. For example, disclosure can make advisors feel free to give worse (i.e., more biased) advice because advisees ?have been warned? (Cain, Loewenstein, & Moore, 2011). Also, disclosure can pressure advisees into satisfying the advisors? disclosed interests, because these interests are now common knowledge and are begging to be satisfied, just as a panhandler puts pressure on passersby to donate (Sah, Loewenstein, & Cain, 2013).

PRECEPT 7. An Actuary shall not knowingly perform Actuarial Services involving an actual or potential conflict of interest unless:
(a) the Actuary’s ability to act fairly is unimpaired;
(b) there has been disclosure of the conflict to all present and known prospective Principals whose interests would be affected by the conflict; and
(c) all such Principals have expressly agreed to the performance of the Actuarial Services by the Actuary.

Disruption in Insurance: Harder than it Looks

I wrote the following long form essay for an industry publication. Enjoy!

Disruption in Insurance: Harder than it Looks

I think it was AirBnB that did it best. And I suppose Uber. These two companies introduced a new way of conducting very old businesses, transforming the experience where most would never think transformation was possible. Taxis in particular are horribly contaminated by regulation and special interest politicking. If they are vulnerable, isn’t insurance? Isn’t everyone?

I am a reinsurance broker and one of the things we do is link startup insurance businesses with the capital and partnerships they need to execute. After a while of doing this, you notice even dissimilar ideas fail for similar reasons, which I’ll get into below. As a salesman I am of course an optimist so think of this essay as a list of critiques you, as an entrepreneur, need to overcome to leave your dent in the insurance universe. I hope you do!

I used the word disruption up there and it (the word) is everywhere these days. However, if you were Clay Christensen, the Harvard Professor who coined the term “disruptive innovation” in a 1996 HBR article and subsequent book, you’d probably be frustrated. The term has become massively popular, of course, but widely misunderstood to mean something like ‘tech startups win!’, which isn’t what he was going for. For one, all businesses use technology and new entrants have always used it better than incumbents. Yet all new entrants aren’t ‘disruptive’. Uber has brought dramatic change but Christensen himself is on record saying he doesn’t think it’s disruptive, in the sense he meant for the word.

Real disruption, as defined by Christensen, is scary. For most companies, being relentlessly focused on the customer is a good thing: know what they want and deliver that with focus, discipline and low prices. Or maybe not! In Christensen’s telling, disruption reveals this strength to also be a deadly weakness.

He defines disruption as entering a market from an overlooked customer base, of which he says there are two kinds: low-end footholds and new-market footholds. Low-end footholds start with “less demanding customers” in that they consume much simpler, lower quality products than the mainstream market. The disruptor then progresses up to higher quality customers. In new-market footholds, the disruptor tackles non-consumption first by cultivating customers who had never used the product, then moves into an incumbent’s turf later. In both cases, the end game is offering the final group of customers an equivalent product to the incumbent’s but at a dramatically lower price.

Startups are trying to do this all the time and they are failing all the time. I picture an incumbent smugly chuckling to himself as a constant buzz of startups tap against the window over and again until they drop. What do they fail? Maybe the incumbent thinks discipline of execution and focus on the customer keep it from wasting time on these fancy pants tech ideas. The poison in that chalice is that a company can get in the habit of dismissing everything new and assuming an old ‘bad’ idea can’t ever become good. Venture capitalist Marc Andreessen likes to roll out the old dotcom bubble whipping post,, and note that, an almost identical business, was recently sold for 3.3bn. Timing is more important than creativity and timing cannot be planned.

In insurance, the best example of real disruption comes from developing countries in the form of microinsurance. Check this out from the Microinsur website:

We have introduced new forms of protection for emerging customers, including micro-health, political violence, crop and mobile insurance all over the world. In each case, we didn’t start by designing a product in a board room – we visited our customers in markets and villages to understand how they cope with the variety of risks in their lives. The result of this client-centric approach is a new suite of solutions, and the opening of a new market for insurance.

This hits both of Christensen’s entry points: new and low end! In listening to Microsinsur’s founder Richard Leftly’s interview, it’s clear he is aware of this, talking about the power of delivering insurance solutions at phenomenally low overhead costs. A good idea, then. How about timing?

Microinsurance only becomes disruptive if it moves upmarket and the challenge there is regulatory: most insurance buying is forced. Compulsory purchasing makes customers stupid, especially at the low end of the market where the smartest bargain hunters live. Regulators set the rules for what customers can buy and don’t want change. And they have good reason! New products make it hard to tell when someone is underpricing to win, later to collapse in a mess the regulator needs to clean up.

Are regulators ready to try something different? I don’t see it but it’s common for insiders to miss signals of coming revolution. That’s the problem with timing, you need to try (and probably fail!) in order to answer the question: why now?

Enter Disintermediation

I think that when people say disruption they really mean disintermediation. Disintermediation is probably the number one ‘swing for the fences’ strategy for any business. Everyone deals with intermediaries and endures their transaction costs for the benefit of accessing a market. Disintermediation removes the transaction costs but also removes the market! Let’s take three examples:

  1. Cutting out brokers (going direct to consumer or agents)
  2. Cutting out insurers (Automated underwriting)
  3. Cutting out everyone (peer to peer insurance)

Each has been around for decades but none has taken off, really. Here are some ideas for why.

*Cutting out Brokers*

Example: direct insurers and reinsurers

Your broker protects you from getting screwed. Screwed means buying something when an identical product could be had for less. Brokers protect by forcing insurers into the ring to fight for your business. Now, insurance is also complex, requiring some expertise to ensure coverages and terms really are identical before you compare prices. Such expertise means brokers cost good money! Is it worth it?

Let’s come at this a different way by asking “do brokers cause more competition or does more competition cause brokers to appear?” I say the latter: brokers are a symptom of competition, not a cause. And competition is not constant, which means the strength of the broker also rises and falls. That, in turn, means there are two ways to legitimately cut out a broker: 1) remove the need for competition; 2) get insurers to compete without a broker.

Removing competition is not as crazy as it sounds. Consider my business, reinsurance: over the last 30 years the market has had several big negative surprises, causing incumbents to question their understanding of certain businesses, opening up room for several waves of startup reinsurers with distinct appetites. No question those were competition-enhancing episodes.

In between those episodes we’ve witness the reverse: appetites converging as the claims environment settled down. This means carriers consolidate to save on costs since they find it harder to secure an underwriting advantage against others’ identical view of risk. We call this a soft market.

Fewer differentiated options in the market makes a direct relationship more appealing. That said, a complete unification of strategy among reinsurers in volatile business will probably never happen. And even then brokers will always have deeper relationships with the marketplace than a reinsurance buyer and that means better deals. A disempowered broker is still the best place to keep from getting screwed.

In direct insurance things are a bit different, particularly in non-catastrophe-exposed personal lines where products are homogenous and margins are thin. There, new entrants are unable to replicate the data of the incumbents and so bear enormous risk of unknowingly underpricing their business.

Critical mass of is not a new problem in insurance. A hundred years ago the market solved it by banding together to create rating bureaus, centralizing the analysis and often prescribing rates themselves. It was an era much more comfortable with collusion and monopoly than today. That solution is showing its age in many lines: the data needed to put together a state of the art personal lines rating plan has exploded and is growing still. ISO, the heir of the rating bureaus, isn’t keeping up. So market participants have two options: strengthen ISO or be huge. They chose the latter.

The real technological development is that direct carriers are passing on discarded customer leads to competitors, in effect creating bilateral marketplaces. GEICO pioneered a version of this by generating a customer, stripping out the auto and partnering with other carriers (mostly large) to sell the other products. The additional cost of passing a lead to another carrier’s system is zero so why not have a world where large direct carriers are all linked up and whichever portal you enter generates an extra fee for that carrier? That would be a market without a broker but can carriers really stop themselves from manipulating the prices somehow or denying access to the market until your reject a higher priced policy first?

As always, cutting out the broker begs the question: how do you know you’ve got the best deal?

*Cutting out Insurers*

Example: catastrophe hedge funds cutting out insurers and reinsurers and going direct.

Insurance deals in risk. Risk isn’t real, really, like buildings or dishwashers or iPhones are real. Risk is a bad outcome we can’t see coming. Since we can’t see it we can’t avoid it.

That’s nice, says the insurer’s accountant, but that doesn’t help me fill out this tax return. How much money are you making and if you tell me none of it is real again you’re going to jail? Well insurers start with revenue for taking the risk (premium) but no claims payments for a while. What should the accountants do with that? Well, before insurers there were two options, a legal one and an illegal one. The legal option is to declare all the policy limits as obligations and put them on your balance sheet. But we can’t just pay today for every bad outcome that might happen tomorrow, there are too many possibilities!  So enter the illegal one –  to just pretend our way to an answer.

Boy the second one sounds way better. But we still have risk! Now the risk is that the insurer really is insolvent and we don’t know it yet. Who takes this risk? Nobody wants it, least of all policyholders who need their claims paid. So the state takes the risk and puts it into a box called a guarantee fund. They charge for that little trick, of course, demanding money and regulation.

Insurer disintermediation is a really about cutting out the regulator but then someone else has to take the insolvency risk. A workaround exists: using a ‘front’, being a business that takes no risk and only supplies regulatory services. All the other functions: underwriting, finance, claims processing and claims risk are all administered by a variety of agencies, consultants and reinsurers.

Fronting companies are really small, financially speaking, because the premium all goes to pay the agents and consultants and reinsurers. There remains this tiny little probability of the reinsurers, agencies and consultants going out of business or not honoring their various promises. They call it tail risk. But the front is riskless, so who takes that?

Great question! In the (non-fronting) wild, the insurer takes it and keeps a few risk absorbers against bad outcomes: premium, capital and the guaranty fund. The thin front doesn’t keep the premium base, being the first and biggest of those absorbers. As a consequence, modern fronts tend to be incredibly selective of what they accept and/or push as much of this as possible onto the other counterparties.

But as soon as you need to quantify the insurance limits exposed you’re back to the pre-insurance era of accounting, declaring all the limits and capitalizing them on your balance sheet. It really doesn’t work:

There are something like 29 million small business in the US. Each has a GL policy for, say, $1m limit and pays probably something like $1,000 for it. In theory, then, there is 29 trillion in GL limit outstanding for 29 billion in premium. That’s a 1000x disparity.

That’s why insurers aren’t asked to hold collateral against all that limit exposed. But the scope for something going wrong is huge and finding a way to absorb tail risks is the challenge in disintermediating insurers. Policyholders with valid claims aren’t going to get a haircut. Shareholders are tiny compared to the limits exposed. To disintermediate the insurance company you need to answer: who gets the tail risk?

*Cutting out Everyone*

Example: reciprocals, pools, captives, lemonade.

Here’s a cartoon example of how insurance works: we pay premium to an insurer who pays it right back to us as claims. Well, they also sit on it for a few years and keep about a third of it to fund the system: brokers, underwriters, finance departments, taxes. A third?! For giving us back our own premium? Yes.

To an economist, literally everyone in the industry, not just brokers but insurers, reinsurers, adjusters, etc, are intermediaries: they aren’t ‘doing anything’, just shuffling money around, keeping some for their trouble.

Exciting opportunity alert! Let’s cut them all out, go peer to peer and pocket the savings. Not a new idea, I’m afraid. Legend has it that the first insurance companies had exactly such a structure: merchants pooling their losses from sunken ships. So literally every other feature we see of the insurance industry was deliberately invented: brokers, underwriters, finance departments, actuaries…

Let’s defend all our jobs by first stepping back a bit. Insurers protect us from random chance (God) and moral hazard (other customers!).

Protecting us from God is about getting enough volume. House fires are too volatile to pool among 10 or 15 friends. And bigger pools are hard to coordinate so you have to pay someone to help with that. Enter the insurance company processing department and perhaps reinsurance for extreme cases.

I’d argue every other feature of our business exists to protect our premium dollars from moral hazard (ie our fellow customers). Think of the merchant in our primordial insurance pool who lies about his ship sinking and pockets the cash. An insurer is really just a pool of money that each insured has a claim to. Is it so surprising some will greedily eye that cash when they think nobody is watching? Defending the pool against wrongful claimants is what the industry does.

But what about customer service! Lemonade in particular uses the idea of insurers’ poor service as its key promotional message. Even granting that customer service is poor, root problem isn’t that insurers are evil, it’s that customers lie! Even forgetting simple fraud, how about the insured that doesn’t repair his sprinkler system because he has an insurance policy? Moral hazard is incredibly tricky (expensive) to identify. Even then, the higher expense of oversight yields massively larger benefits in reducing the cost of invalid or avoidable claims. This makes insurance cheaper! The chance that you need the customer service is pretty low. The chance that you want those hundreds of dollars of premium back in your pocket is pretty high.

So you can think of the insurance market as having found a balance between low premiums, which customers like, and suspicious and skeptical customer service, which customers don’t like. Cut all that out and you have to answer: how do I protect customers from each other?

So It Can’t Happen?

Now, of course Uber and AirBnB, in particular, looked completely stupid at first. Lots of very serious people had lots of really good reasons for why they would fail. And look at them now! The problem is that those serious people, wrong on those two counts, are normally right. Startups capture the imagination exactly because they’re so outrageous and unlikely. In a mostly market economy like ours, the world is complicated and dramatic changes are very rare. Want to make the highest probability prediction for next year? Start with “more of the same ahead”.

The answers you need to the questions above need to be better than the answers the industry already has:

  • “How do you know you’ve got the best deal?” I test the market with a broker
  • “Who gets the tail risk?” Insurance shareholders and guarantee funds
  • “How do I protect customers from each other?” underwriting and claims management
  • “if disruption, why now?”

The answer to the last is to usually point out any number of the cutting edge technologies of the day and scoff at how slow incumbents are to adopt them. I agree there is opportunity there.

But even startups launched by insiders underestimate the reason insurance is different: you don’t know your costs up front. Without a track record of success regulators, rating agencies and reinsurers will slam the door shut. Building that track record takes time. And during that time incumbents catch up and startups often assimilate, are acquired or blow up.

What’s a startup to do? I say don’t fight against the basics of insurance, use them to your advantage instead. There are times new entrants are allowed in. We call them hard markets and they can work as laboratories of insurance innovation. Incumbents lose faith in their understanding of the risk and deliberately retreat. The system is begging for someone who can be more nimble and solve the market problem.

As I write this perhaps the Caribbean is a good choice, decimated by Irma and Maria? These are challenging situations because along with whatever technology a new entrant wants to bring to the market they need to solve a pricing problem for the risks. But the entrant has a pricing problem no matter when they enter. At least they’re on even ground with everyone else in a hard market!

”This article was first published in the Journal Of Reinsurance, a publication of the IRUA – – and is reproduced with permission.”

Turning Reinsurers Around With Joe Taranto

Joe Taranto is one of the most successful reinsurance executives in the last 40 years. He has turned around and taken public two reinsurers who even today are very prominent and successful companies: Transatlantic Reinsurance Company and Everest Re, the latter of which he spent 20 years leading as CEO and 10xing the firm over that period.
Joe started his career at AIG, a firm that has produced some of the most important leaders in the insurance business, Joe among them. We learn what is was like working there, Joe’s turnaround experienes, his strategy and philosophy of management and leadership.

Listen to whole thing!
If you enjoyed the show please subscribe in your favorite app, rate it on itunes and you can also sign up for periodic, short updates on content I produce, including these shows at

Robin Hanson Will Blow Your Mind


The latest guest on the Not Unreasonable Podcast is Robin Hanson (read his blog!)

Robin is one of the most original thinkers of our time. I’ll borrow a description from Bryan Caplan, who I think described him best:

When the typical economist tells me about his latest research, my standard reaction is “Eh, maybe.” Then I forget about it. When Robin Hanson tells me about his latest research, my standard reaction is “No way! Impossible!” Then I think about it for years.

Some time ago, Robin thought he had uncovered some ways to make the world a better place. He expected people to either agree or disagree. Instead he got indifference. How could that be? Does nobody care?

This led Robin to becoming an economist and, eventually, an answer: we aren’t motivated the way we say we are or think we should be. We do care, we just care more about other stuff. Stuff we don’t talk about. Those hidden motives are the subject of Robin’s new book (authored with Kevin Simler), The Elephant in the Brain.

From our conversation, some favorite excepts of mine:

Robin Hanson: Human behavior is consistently well adapted to its ancient environment. We are intelligent and clever about why we’re doing things. But then we have these conscious thoughts. We think we have a plan and follow that plan. But we mostly make conscious rationalizations for things we do. Most of the elephant in the brain is at this conscious level. The level of the reasons we tell ourselves we are doing this. And those reasons are just wrong compared to the reasons we actually have.

We are actually good at following the actual reasons we have, but the disconnect is when we try to explain it.

From earlier:

Robin Hanson: Once farming became possible, it was only possible because of human cultural plasticity. If we had just kept the same sort of norms and behaviors we had as foragers we would still be acting a lot like animals.

With our cultural plasticity we could create new norms. There was a new set of behavior that was the right behavior and a new set of things that were the wrong sort of norm violating behavior. It took a while but the farming world was able to come up with a whole new set of norms and values and enforce those and that allowed us to live and work in a very different world. Intead of wandering around we stayed in one place. Instead of egalitarianly sharing we had property and inequality. Instead of intermittent violence and mostly peace we had war and a lot of it. And we had so many things that were different than what foragers did.

And later:

Robin Hanson: Lately wealth has been dramatically increasing per person and that’s the other big trend over the last few centuries and that’s been causing most of the cultural trends you see. So humans are primed to act differently when they’re rich than when they’re poor. That’s an explantion for why we have increased leisure, art, travel, decreased violence, increased democracy, decreased fertility, decreased religion.

David Wright: Is it the case that foragers, then, are in some ways wealthy?

Robin Hanson: Anthropologists called them the original affluent society. They’re affluent in some ways but not others. They don’t have a lot of material wealth but they have a lot of friendship, play, dance, music. They’re living in a world where when they do something that feels right it roughly works.

…We’re being rich like that in our leisure time but at work we’re hyper farmers.

Do listen to the whole thing!

In Love with Chaos with Michel de Lecq Marguerie


This episode features Michel de Lecq Marguerie. Michel, a most English sounding fellow with a most french sounding name, is one of the most creative deal makers I’ve ever met.

On paper his creativity shouldn’t surprise us: Michel is an accomplished musician, having won a scholarship to the Royal Academy of Music as a teenager. He was an unfocused student, however: “the rest of my education was pretty miserable.. I just wasn’t really engaged with it… I think I had a certain arrogance about music that I was involved in and assumed I was simply going to pursue a career in music like my father and like his father before him.”

Eventually realizing it wasn’t for him, Michel became singularly focused on supporting himself and managed to hustle his way into a job at Lloyd’s. Michel points out that hustle isn’t something that comes naturally to musicians and artists, and in music even he is a different guy: “On the music side funnily enough I would say I’m more on the passive side and actually I enjoy that”.

Michel in business was anything but passive, moving from London to Toronto to join the fledgling broker Beach & Associates. He found the feeling of an empty desk and the need to create something from nothing exhilarating. Eventually I asked “do you like pressure?” and this kicked off my favorite part of the conversation (around minute 52):

I do actually, I do. I think I like a bit of chaos as well… Since I left Beach, I think I’ve created more Chaos for myself. Which I.. I think I love it.

Michel’s love of high pressure situations made him a natural entrepreneur and he credits that path to unlocking his own super power (my words) of creative deal making.

In the interview we also cover what it means to be creative in reinsurance, how Michel’s interview while racing around London in a porche went and what it felt like picking up the pieces (literally) of his office after the IRA bombing of Bishopsgate.

Let none of these adventures mislead you. Michel is one of the most effective reinsurance brokers alive. Credit that to his unique perspective on problems and pressure extreme enough to forge incredible skill.

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Intangibility, Economics 2.0 and What Makes A Modern Firm with Arnold Kling


We talk a lot about technological change but organizations are evolving, too, partly (maybe mostly) due to technology but this line of thinking also stands on its own. No less a celebrated thinker than Peter Drucker reserved a special place for organizational evolution in the innovation universe.

Recently there has been some progress on measuring changes to organizations, most prominently from a new book called *Capitalism without Capital* by Jonathan Haskell and Stian Westlake, which argues that what they call intangible assets are growing in importance.

Intangible assets are ideas, knowledge, aesthetic content, software, brands, networks and relationships. These sit collectively in the heads of employees of an organization and in some ways sit between theirs heads in that organizations are webs of relationships and collaboration. The framework the authors establish is that intangible assets have four qualities: they scale easily, their costs are sunk (you can’t sell them!), they are synergistic, in that the combination of these assets supercharge their effect and they create positive spillovers outside of the firm itself. Intangible assets are most effectively exploited by large organizations.

Other research supports this by pointing out firm margins are increasing but startup rates have declined! This paints a complicated picture and I wanted to find someone to help me think it through.

My guest today, Arnold Kling, has been an early commenter on these trends, publishing essays in the 90s and early 00s discussing declining variable costs (link) and the intangible economy (link to book). He has an incredibly unique perspective in that he has a mainstream economics education (completing his PhD dissertation at MIT under Nobel Laureate Robert Solow) but also started, grew and sold an Internet business in the 90s (see his story here).

There were three themes to the conversation that I thought were excellent.

  1. Management! Perhaps THE thing that distinguishes the modern firm from the (soon to be) extinct is the ability to manage software development. It is hard and a distinct business process that needs to be mastered. The best companies of today take the ability to do great software and apply it to many different businesses. One model of Silicon Valley is that it is a repository of software engineering and management expertise to be dumped on every industry on earth.
  2. Firms are changing and the reading Capitalism Without Capital is a good way to learn about how. But Arnold argues that some of this has always been there and we are just measuring things better (though still not perfectly).
  3. I didn’t even realize it until this conversation but I’ve been drawn to Arnold’s work because it makes sense to me in a way most economics doesn’t outside of a few core concepts. Economics tends to glide over what makes businesses work. Arnold, as a former entrepreneur himself, makes no such mistake.

Read Arnold Kling!

Addendum: Arnold comments and found our conversation interesting enough that he published an essay on Medium about it. An excerpt:

Twenty years ago, management in book retailing meant deciding where to place stores in shopping centers, deciding which books to stock, and creating displays that attracted customers. But now, Amazon has instead made the management of software teams crucial for its book retail business. What we mean today by “management in book retail” is different from what it used to mean.

Economic textbooks describe business leaders as if their job were to aggregate machines and homogeneous workers to produce output. Sixty years ago, this might have been a fair approximation. At that time, many large firms had been started and were being run by men without much formal education, relying instead on experience and grit.

But today, business strategy is more complex. Getting the most out of highly-skilled employees is more challenging. Making the best use of computer technology requires a careful analysis of how new developments affect the business environment.

The Face of the Intangible Economy


In my industry, small firms are going extinct. It’s crystal clear in the reinsurance broker world but the same thing, I think, is happening to all links in the insurance risk chain from agents to reinsurers. Why?

I’m looking forward to an upcoming podcast conversation where I’ll try to make some progress on that question and in advance I’ve been brushing up on all kinds of literature. This year a key book came out, *Capitalism Without Capital* which has interesting things to say about the rise of the intangible economy.

What I love about this book is that it refers to data that is available to download, so I did! My question: how have firms actually been changing over the last 20 years?

The big three intangible categories were R&D, software and something called “organizational capital”. All are growing in the amount of ‘capital’ they represent in firms of all industries though R&D is growing more slowly than overall capital growth (so its share is declining) and software much more quickly.

No big surprises so far and much of the commentary I’ve read on this topic tends to focus the mind’s eye on R&D and software when drawing up interpretations of what is going on. But what on earth is organizational capital? It’s growing at about the same rate as the overall capital growth so its share is constant. Oh, and it’s the biggest (in the UK*)!


To find its definition you need to dig into the source material, specifically this paper by Carol Corrado, where she describes two components of “organizational capital” (I’ve transcribed the description below in a giant quote):

    1. an external component, being money paid to management consultants; and,
    2. an internal component, being the proportion of payroll paid to management.

I haven’t been able to find a breakdown of the internal vs external component. I used the UK data above because it was easier to get the nominal data as a check. This doesn’t include any judgmental adjustments for how much of the spending creates a persistent asset (obviously much time is wasted and some time from managers for example will be spent on things that aren’t necessarily related to intangible assets).

So, compared to fifteen years ago the average firm today spends a ton more money on software, a lot more money on consultants and management and somewhat more on R&D. 

That makes sense to me. More thoughts to come in the podcast.. stay tuned!


*The US data has much more R&D and much more mineral exploration than the UK, the latter of which I think distorts things a bit. Organizational capital is about 15% of the US figures and its share is rising quite fast.

the giant quote from Corrado:

Investments in organizational change and development have both own account and purchased components. The own-account component is represented
by the value of executive time spent on improving the effectiveness of business organizations—that is, the time spent on developing business models and corporate cultures. The purchased component is represented by management consultant fees. The purchased component is estimated using the SAS annual revenues from the management consulting services industry, which rose substantially in the 1990s, from $27 billion at the start of the decade to more than $80 billion during 1998–2000 (table 1.3, line 9a).

The own-account portion is estimated as a proportion of the cost and number of persons employed in executive occupations, which rose very rapidly in the 1990s. Given that executive median pay exceeds the median pay for other employees, the fraction of total private payroll spent on executives and managers is substantial, almost 22 percent in 2000 (Nakamura 2001). Applying the executive and manager payroll share to total private business-sector compensation yields an estimate for managerial and executive costs of nearly $900 billion per year in the 1998–2000 period.

If just one-fifth of management time is spent on organizational innovation, then businesses devoted more than $200 billion per year to improving the effectiveness of their organizations during 1998–2000 (table 1.3, line 9b). This figure is highly sensitive, of course, to the admittedly arbitrary choice of one-fifth as the fraction of time managers spend on investing in organizational development and change; as a result, our estimate for this component ranges from $105 billion (based on a one-tenth fraction) to nearly $350 billion (which assumes one-third). Adding in the $80 billion annual expense for management consulting (described above), our point estimate of total spending on organizational change and development is nearly $300 billion per year from 1998 to 2000.

How Ted Blanch Left His Dent in the Universe (or at least in Minnesota)

This episode features Ted Blanch. Ted to me is one of the greatest leaders the reinsurance industry has ever seen and one of the most underrated leaders of any industry in any era. Ted ran the firm EW Blanch, taking over at about 50 employees and growing it into a billion dollar company by the mid-90s. That alone puts Ted among the most successful businessmen in the world but EW Blanch was also a pioneer in catastrophe modeling and has as its legacy a reinsurance industry in Minneapolis. How many can say they reshaped the economic geography of the United States? How he did it, his philosophy of management and Ted’s downright humility shine through in our conversation.

Two things I learned in this conversation that I’ll carry with me for a long time are how catastrophe modeling as an investment for the firm (and they were a pioneer) followed the classic startup path: it was a stupid idea.. until it wasn’t. I’ll let Ted tell the story:

If we had laid a bigger egg, it would have to have been dropped by an albatross.

And then a wonderful thing happened. And the wonderful thing that happened was Hurricane Andrew. Where all of the people who had their own systems for measuring their cat exposures found out just how wrong they were. Did they have a desire to be right? I don’t know. But I’ll tell you one thing, the guy sitting in the corner office didn’t want to have to go to the board or the shareholders and say we’re not doing anything about this. So everybody started using modeling.

On the organizational front, two things stood out. First that he hired young and trained folks obsessively. Here Ted explains the development program:

TB: We had professional educators who were doing it. We never had them teach, we only had them organize it and help develop the curriculum. The teachers were always the people who worked at the firm.
DW: What did it look like for a new student coming into the program…
TB: Basically it was divided into two parts: one was classroom work and the other was we gave them jobs to do so they were always working…
The classroom work was basically half days to whole days and it went on for, I don’t know, my recollection is we were doing about 9 weeks of classroom work which was divided into sections in a syllabus to cover a bunch of different things. And then we would test them and they liked being tested…

Second, he shared in the equity of EW Blanch with his producers. Ted one last time:

TB: My belief was that I would be better off having a smaller share of a much larger pie than I would having a big percentage but not being able to attract and work with people who really felt good about what they were doing.

DW: did you always know that would work?

TB: No, no I didn’t know it would work it just seemed like the right thing to do.”

There’s so much more in our conversation, including what Ted thinks of Minneapolis, a discussion on whether or not he fired his father and what he’s learning about now after almost 60 years in the business.

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