recaps of the top 'ask me anything' interviews from reddit and more...
I'm Felix Salmon, from Axios. AMA about finance, philanthropy, or even Brutalist architecture

I'm Felix Salmon, the chief financial correspondent at Axios, as well as the host of the Slate Money podcast. I cover all the ways that money drives the world, and have side interests in everything from philanthropy to urbanism to art and architecture. Please subscribe to my newsletter!


OK that was fun! Thanks for all the questions!

February 19th 2021
interview date

What are your thoughts on microfinance in 3rd world countries as an alternative to traditional "handouts" which have been shown to harm overall regional economic growth?


My main thought about microfinance is that it doesn't scale well. It works *incredibly* well in rural areas where women have no real ability to find a job, and it can give them working capital to become, essentially, micro entrepreneurs and to do important (and often life-saving) consumption smoothing. But in cities it works much less well and for people with jobs it looks a lot like usury.

Also there's an omnipresent risk of payment strikes, which effectively destroy the model overnight. And there's no real way of hedging that risk.

Finally there's a lot of currency risk involved if what you're talking about is basically 0% loans in dollars getting turned into 30% loans in pesos. And that's very hard to hedge in a cost-effective manner.


Is there a sweet spot in the quality/cost tradeoff for wine? Should I try buying a bunch of more expensive $40+/bottle wines to test, or just try and find some rich friends?


I would say probably the $20-25 range, although it depends a lot what region you're buying from. If you like big California Cabernets, or fine Burgundies, you won't find much that's good in that range. On the other hand if you like regions like the Loire or Slovenia or Greece, you can find some fantastic stuff for that kind of money.

I would definitely approve of trying some $40+ wines and seeing what you think. For a lot of people there's no real "that's much better" moment there, which is great, because then you get to live a much cheaper life. I'm slowly coming around to the realization, for instance, that I generally prefer cheaper whiskey to more expensive whiskey, which is awesome.


If you could give the new president one piece of advice to help the economic recovery in the US, what would it be?


Do everything you can to help state and local governments, which generally have to balance their budgets and which are facing massive shortfalls in tax revenue. Don't force them to lay off good, important workers just because of fiscal reasons. Quite the reverse: Invest in things like local education, transit infrastructure, etc. Those investments pay off enormously over time, and create good jobs today.


My son is named Felix, any advice for a Felix making his way in this world?


It's becoming an increasingly popular name! I love it, and sometimes in the Before Times I would even have Felix dinners at a restaurant named Felix in Manhattan, with other Felixes. In my day it came with a bit of teasing but once you're out in the world it's memorable and fun. And it has a great meaning.


what do you think of boston's city hall? that has always been my primary brutalist reference point, and i have... mixed feelings about that building.


Me too! It is incredibly effective in its own way, but it definitely suffers from one of the greatest weaknesses of brutalist architecture in general, which is that it's hard to *evolve* a building. Once it's built, it's just there, and very hard to change with the times.


What do you think, if anything will come from the Senate hearing on Gamestop?


You mean the House hearing, I think. My guess is that ultimately probably nothing will come of it. Although I do think it has served to hurt the reputation of Vlad Tenev, who did not come across well. So maybe that might at the margin hurt Robinhood's valuation when it goes public.


The current Slate Money lineup with Anna & Emily and yourself has such great chemistry - perhaps only Rational Security comes close right now. So bummed that Anna is leaving: do you have someone lined up that can continue this rapport? Is Anna going to continue podcasting?


Thank you! We're going to miss Anna greatly, and no she's not going to continue podcasting. If she could, then she would have stayed, I'm sure.

So far we don't have a replacement lined up. All nominations gratefully accepted!


Felix, did you ever get any Alpaca socks regarding your bitcoin bet with Ben Horowotz?

? I think I heard it on Marketplace with Kai Rysdahl


I did!! You heard it on Planet Money, and in fact there was a follow-up episode where he lost the bet and handed over the socks, which are very fluffy and comfortable and coming in very handy in all this snow. Thanks Ben! (Although I have to admit they're not 100% alpaca.)

There's now a second bet, on similar terms, but for slightly higher stakes. This time, when I win, I'm going to get a 100-year-old bottle of Madeira. And 1 ETH.


Hi Felix, day 1 Slate Money listener here, great stuff. Simple question - how does Brexit end? Also what are your thoughts on the British Monarchy? I don't think I've ever heard you opine on the Royals one way or the other.


My hope is that Brexit ends with the UK rejoining the EU -- or, I suppose, with first Scotland doing it, and then Northern Ireland rejoining it by reunifying with the Republic of Ireland, and then finally England and Wales doing it. But it's going to be a long time before that happens, and there will a huge amount of unnecessary pain along the way. David Cameron has a lot to answer for, it's all his fault.

The British Monarchy is a ridiculous anachronism. All they're really good for is boosting Netflix subscription numbers.


We have quite a few Brutalist structures here in Buffalo, NY. Have any favorites? If it's even possible to think of anything Brutalist as a favorite.


Ooh yes, Paul Rudolph’s Earl Brydges library. For sure.


Brutalist Architecture Question: what’s your opinion on the administrative motifs present in all that awful concrete? I live in a city that saw a building boom during the height of brutalist popularity, and good god, my friend, when poorly executed, it’s like a stain of drab and “just not right” - imo


Bad brutalism is often very bad, especially when it's not well maintained. It needs love! And often doesn't get it.


Are finance journalists forced to divest from the market or hire an independent manager in order to avoid conflict of interest in reportage?


Jumping back in to answer this 'cos it's a very good question. There isn't a universal hard-and-fast rule on this, but the general consensus these days is that we don't own individual stocks. But broad index funds and robo-advisors and the like are fine.


How do you think UBS survived the records leak of its tax-dodging private banking clients?


It certainly suffered, and ultimately Swiss private banking got dragged kicking and screaming into the global financial system where it is now much easier to hold those banks accountable for their actions. So while the bank still exists, the old-school Swiss banks as we knew them are not really what they used to be, with their anonymous numbered accounts etc.


Not sure if you're a gamer, but have you heard of the game Control?

It heavily features Brutalist Architecture which factors into the narrative of the game.

Whats your favorite representation of Brutalism in media?


I don't know the game, but I do love the movie High Rise, featuring Tom Hiddleston. A dystopian adaptation of a JG Ballard story.


I feel like a lot of people think of brutalist architecture as lifestyle and inherently bad, where do you stand on this?


It's definitely becoming a lifestyle. It looks great on Instagram. But it's not inherently bad!


Have you seen the monument to the Gulag, the Mask of Sorrow?


ooh that's super interesting. Figurative brutalist sculpture is a thing, we have a huge Picasso in Manhattan and there's another in Chicago. But it's rare.


What's your opinion on universal basic income and do you think the US will ever implement it in the future (considering we were very close in the 70s)?

Also, what is your opinion on increasingly popular Modern Monetary Theory that focuses more on controlling inflation rather than the deficits/debt?


A lot of my thoughts about UBI can be found here, in my review of Annie Lowrey's book on the subject. As a way of eradicating poverty, it's incredibly wasteful: By definition, only 10% of the money goes to the poorest 10% of the population. But also as a political compromise it's an incredibly expensive way of moving the ball not very far down the field, especially if it also means getting rid of some of the existing social safety net. Also, I don't really see any kind of left-right consensus that it's even a good idea. I'm not personally opposed to it, and in principle I like the idea of unconditional cash transfers. In practice however I think there's little to no chance that it will be implemented in the US.

As for MMT, I think it has some very important insights. I'm not convinced however that fiscal policy is a realistic way of controlling inflation. If inflation starts picking up, it's going to be *very* hard to persuade politicians to enact big budget cuts as a way of trying to bring it down.


How do you feel about Vienna's public housing?


Big fan. In general I love the idea that people can and should have housing security and be able to live in quality housing without needing to be so rich and liquid that they can afford to own their home outright, and without running the risk that they can get evicted or priced out of their home at any time.


Hi Felix, herd inmunity in the USD this summer?


I don't think herd immunity is really a binary thing. We're certainly not going to get to a point this summer where Covid is just not in the community and not spreading and no one needs to worry about it. I think masks etc are going to be with us for all this year and a good chunk of 2022, and quite possibly longer than that. That said, I am hopeful that anybody who wants the vaccine will be able to be vaccinated by this summer, and once you're vaccinated the danger of the disease diminishes enormously.


I’m sorry to do this to you man and please specify what your precise words were but remember a few weeks before March on Rollin Stone’s Useful Idiots with Katie Halper and Matt Taibbi when you said something to the effect of “we’ll not see another downturn like the Great Recession again”? Did you take big huge crises like CoVID into account as something that could affect markets or...? Curious about how your thoughts on finance have changed since then....


I don’t have the transcript but I don’t think I would have said that. I think what I said was that we wouldn’t have a financial crisis like the Great Recession. Basically, that the next big crisis was not going to originate in the financial sector. I think I was right about that.


what are your predictions on plot lines of the next season of Succession?


I can’t wait to find out.


How much influence, in your opinion, does lobbyism have in the U.S. congress?


Far too much. Often lobbyists are the only people who even read the legislation before it's voted on.


What was Ralph Bakshi's greatest work?


Don't confuse Felix the Cat with Fritz the Cat! They're very different!


do you think reddit is being unfairly singled out due to the gamestop situation, especially by lawmakers?


Probably not? I didn't watch the whole hearing, but I didn't get the impression that Reddit was particularly being singled out. I think Robinhood got a lot more pressure and questions than Reddit did. I think that pre-hearing there was a *risk* that Reddit would have been singled out, but in the event that risk didn't really materialize.


Pineapple on pizza ? Yes or no?


lol no

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