A Deca-dent Newsletter [#10]

Jeff’s Newsletter, Volume 10

1. Feed the beast
It seems we’re all frustrated with social media. I don’t need to say anything about fake news, transparently odious as it is, but I think the “filter bubble” effect may be even worse. Jonathan Haidt shares a pessimistic view on civil discourse in the age of Facebook: “So long as we are all immersed in a constant stream of unbelievable outrages perpetrated by the other side, I don’t see how we can ever trust each other and work together again.” The Stratechery podcast went deep into the evolution of finding information on the Internet: from curated websites on Yahoo! to query-driven links on Google to personalized clickbait on Facebook. This topic quickly gets paradoxical when you consider how amazing the Internet is for finding niche content that only you and a thousand other people could appreciate–is the filter bubble just the other side of the solipsistic coin? The discussion of a push/pull distinction helped resolve the paradox for me. My best information-gathering experiences are of the ‘pull’ variety–podcasts and newsletters I subscribe to, Wikipedia pages I trawl, articles from 2009 that answer my question today. But Facebook has redefined information gathering as a ‘push’–we wait at our ‘feeds’ like so many animals at the trough, immobilized for whatever antibiotic-laced slop comes our way. Well beyond political polarization, I think this ‘push’ model (especially as operated by one centralized aggregator) is really damaging for curiosity, intellectual initiative, and independent thinking. Is there any company whose utopian self-image is more disconnected from its dystopian reality than Facebook in the age of News Feed?

p.s. I use this News Feed Eradicator plug-in and you can too! Facebook is much better without it.

2. Get a job, sir
I enjoyed this review of a new book by David Frayne on The Refusal of Work: The Theory and Practice of Resistance to Work. Frayne reviews the intellectual history of opposition to work; work is oppressive, limiting, dehumanizing, and the shame of not working in a society that valorizes work can be even worse. He also presents ethnographic research on several British people who have deliberately dropped out of full-time jobs. Contemporary interest in this topic seems mostly related to the automation panic, but the reviewer, John Danaher, praises Frayne for divorcing his discussion of anti-work philosophy from technological change: “It may be true that it has more pragmatic appeal in light of technological developments; but the moral and political case for an anti-work politics must be developed on its own.” Danaher points out that even if automation frees us from the economic necessity of work, it’s not clear what that would leave us free to do: “We may find that technology also frees us from much else that we do as well, i.e. from work in the broader, non-economic sense.” My view is that we already have the seeds of post-work in our midst, but we don’t recognize them as such. Academic research; artisanal food, craft, and art production; personal coaching and training services; and semi-professional sports and video gaming foretell the possibilities for meaningful existence after bureaucratically organized work. I should actually read a book about medieval economies before saying this, but my rough idea is that future work will look something like a much richer Middle Ages Europe without the feudalism.

3. Or maybe we’ll just play video games
…That’s one possibility I was forced to consider during this week’s fascinating EconTalk interview with Erik Hurst, an economist at Chicago. Hurst has some papers assessing the decline in male labor force participation over the past 15 years, and particularly showing how the housing boom masked that long-run decline with a short-term surge in construction jobs. One striking statistic was that since 2000, men ages 31-55 without a BA have decreased their annual hours worked by over 10%. A large part of this story is the loss of millions of manufacturing jobs in that same period. One typical response to that fact is to say that 80% of Americans used to work in agriculture, and we successfully transitioned out of that era. But Hurst suggested two grounds for rebuttal. First, there was never as rapid a decline in agricultural jobs as the manufacturing decline in the early 2000s. Second, and I think more troubling in the long run, it’s not clear that the switch from manufacturing to services is as easy for an individual worker as the switch from agriculture to manufacturing once was. In technical terms, the “skill substitutability” may now be much lower. This is a huge opportunity for research (measuring skills and the skill requirements of tasks is hard).

In other research, Hurst links employment, cohabitation, and time-use surveys to figure out what people who aren’t working are up to. 18% of men in their 20s without a BA have not worked in the past year (compared to 8% in 2000). You don’t have to be living in your parents’ basement to predict what they’re up to: weekly time spent on the Internet and video games has doubled for unemployed young men since 2000. Hurst talks about this in a delightfully non-judgemental way that only an economist can: in his framing, video games have gotten really fun so it’s no surprise that the value of leisure time has increased to the point where working, especially at a minimum wage job, is too costly. He draws a parallel to the story of dishwashers, microwaves, and washing machines which made home labor more efficient and allowed dual-earner households to do more market labor; in this case, leisure is apparently more attractive than the market–at least for men.

4. When your identity is anti-identity-politics
If you love self-destructive internecine left-wing conflict, I’ve got you covered. Probably this week’s most talked-about essay was Mark Lilla arguing, in the Times, that we should abandon identity politics and move to a post-identity liberalism. That rather than appealing to African-American, Latino, LGBT, and women voters, we should appeal to common American identity. Most people on the left disagreed. Jim Sleeper, who wrote a book twenty years ago arguing a similar point, says Lilla gets the symptoms right but misses the cause, which is capitalism: people “retreat from the public sphere into defensive camps of color and gender when public life is being deranged by casino-like financing, predatory lending, and intrusive, degrading marketing.” Katherine Franke goes much further and says Lilla represents the “liberalism of white supremacy. It is a liberalism that regards the efforts of people of color and women to call out forms of power that sustain white supremacy and patriarchy as a distraction.” Bree Newsome sent the defining tweet of the episode: “Framing “identity politics” as an idea that takes focus away from “working people” is basically saying let’s ignore racism & sexism.” I think that’s an uncharitable exaggeration, but it’s a very good tweet. And in her subsequent tweets, Newsome is right on the money, arguing that “racism and sexism are inextricably tied to economic issues.” My view on the issue, best approximated by Matthew Yglesias, is that we liberals can and should make both appeals. We’ve gotten pretty good at calling out discrimination. We haven’t figured out how to articulate economic populism, which is why populists are getting jumpy and casting blame. But it’s counterproductive to blame our allies on the liberal side.

Somewhat related, I strongly recommend this interview with the intimidatingly brilliant Teju Cole. He hits on many points of art, literature, and music that I only wish could be the typical substance of this newsletter (go for the James Baldwin discussion alone), but also touches on identity politics and political correctness. Discussing the Yale Halloween uproar in particular, he articulates the familiar point that it wasn’t really about Halloween costumes in the best terms I’ve seen: “Remember, Al Capone was done on tax evasion. This is the civil rights equivalent of that. You’re gonna look for those particular forms of disrespect that allow you to kick down the door, and then talk about the wider issue.”

5. Who you gonna call
Speaking of a populist message, I believe antitrust policy needs to be dusted off and returned to its place at the center of progressive politics. “Today, two-thirds of the 900 industries tracked by The Economist feature heavier concentration at the top than they did in 1997. The global economy is in the middle of a merger wave big enough to make 2015 the biggest year in history for corporate consolidation.” I took my mind off TrumpWorld and found some inspiration in these two articles about a nascent antitrust movement: this history of Washington’s modern apathy toward and enablement of corporate concentration, and this profile of Barry Lynn, little-known antitrust crusader in the background of Elizabeth Warren and Zephyr Teachout’s leadership on the issue. Net neutrality is the movement’s only real victory in recent years, and there are likely to be many more setbacks under President Trump. I’m planning to read Robert Bork’s The Antitrust Paradox, which remains the dominant framework for those who still pay attention to the issue. Bork argued that the sole goal of antitrust policy should be consumer welfare, which is often best served by vertical consolidation. I plan to write more about why I disagree on both counts.

6. On Zadie
Finally, I’ll leave you with the unending wisdom of Zadie Smith.

On the risks of “too much” multiculturalism:

“My husband is from Northern Ireland, which is a completely racially homogeneous place, and was for hundreds of years, and they still managed to find the difference between which way you faced an altar, and then kill each other for at least 600 of those years. I don’t accept the initial premise. Do you see what I mean?”

On what is interesting about Trump, novelistically:

“What I find so painful is the idea of children competing for the affection of a narcissist, whose affection they will never receive. That seems to me just excruciating. That’s what boggles my mind: Reading interviews with them where they boast about who gets to call him in his office more regularly or who saw him more than four times during their childhood. It’s so sad, that part. It’s slightly unbearable. Also because if the children don’t correct the narcissist, he goes to his grave never knowing. I think that’s the kind of man he is, right? He’ll never know.”

On cultural appropriation:

I’m almost never accused of cultural appropriation—why not? Because I’m brown and Bengalis are brown and so it’s all the same to white people? It’s interesting. It’s a kind of fake piety. I do resent the idea of being portrayed as such a vulnerable human that if you involved yourself in any aspect of my “culture” I will crumble at the idea of you borrowing it from me.

On the literary value of having children:

I was at a book festival and a writer of my own age, who will remain nameless, sat opposite me and said, “God you’re having a kid huh?” It was a man. He said, “I guess you’re going to lose a lot of time and you must be worried about falling behind.” I was about seven months pregnant, and I just had a sudden inspiration. I said, “Yeah I guess so” and then, “You must be worried about just a complete lack of human experience that you’re now going to be 40 and then 50.”

Nine Lives, Cat’s Eyes: Newsletter #9

Jeff’s Newsletter, Volume 9

Welcome to week 9. Most of this week’s items are only obliquely related to the election. Life goes on, and that’s part of the problem: normalize nothing, remain vigilant.

1. The game of life
Those looking to learn some game theory will be disappointed by Finite and Infinite Games by James Carse. It turns out that Finite and Infinite Games is, without ever announcing itself as such, a guide on how to live. And against all its competitors in this oldest of nonfiction genres, this might just be the book I’d pick to build a religion around. Some people will hate this book because of its aggressively zen style. Sentences come in pairs, chin-stroking aphorisms contrasting two concepts, like, “To be prepared against surprise is to be trained. To be prepared for surprise is to be educated.” But the substance is deep enough to justify this approach, and in my view very wise. Each dichotomous pair builds on the original one: finite games are activities oriented toward an end goal; infinite games are activities motivated by the joy of playing for its own sake (I’ll spoil the ending: there is only one infinite game). Carse applies this framework to, among other things: property, power, parenting, technology, and sex. He writes with a steady moral vision–one that values freedom above order, thinking above knowledge, and the future above the past. I’m not ready to accept his vision wholesale–the implications of abandoning goal-oriented action are troublingly nihilistic. The trick, as I see it, is to play the minimum number of finite games necessary to allow us all unfettered access to the infinite game. But be careful: “Evil always originates in the desire to eliminate evil.”

2. Against solutionism
Geek Heresy argues that technology is (mostly) not the answer to problems of social change. Kentaro Toyama, a computer scientist, spent over a decade at Microsoft Research studying NGOs working on education, agriculture, and microlending in the United States and India. Again and again, he watched clever digital interventions go unused–this should be familiar for anyone who has worked in education or international development. Toyama sees technology as an “amplifier:” it can add massive scale to human behavior, but it can’t change the behavior itself. I’ve found this simple framework very useful in the past few weeks. For example, there has been a lot of thoughtful discussion on changing Facebook’s filters to prevent the formation of ideologically sheltered echo chambers. I value this goal, but as Tyler Cowen points out, the tendency to share biased information does not begin or end with Facebook (consider email threads forwarded by your conspiracy theorist uncle). The “solution” to homophily will probably not be an algorithm.
For Toyama, progress is mostly about encouraging intrinsic growth in people and societies rather than providing packaged, technocratic interventions. If this sounds trite, consider how at odds this idea is with most contemporary social science. Toyama especially criticizes behavioral economics, the ascendant discipline in development, for its focus on short-lived nudges rather than long-lasting intrinsic motivation. But if economics is committed to incentives, sociology is even more structuralist, wedded to a vision of social change based on shaping people’s external circumstances. Toyama espouses consequentialist virtue ethics; i.e., foster values and tendencies in people that will probably lead to a better world. He argues that “heart, mind, and will” or intention, discernment, and self-control are the necessary and sufficient building blocks for all virtuous behavior. Only after identifying pent-up virtuous ambitions does it make sense to build a technological amplifier. A good example is M-Pesa, the famous Kenyan phone-based money transfer service. The original idea for M-Pesa was based on an observation that people were already swapping cell-phone minutes as a proxy for money. Last week I was happy to see an excellent tweetstorm from Dave Guarino, an engineer at Code for America, making some of these exact points: “Tech is a tool for leverage, for scale, against problems. You can create impact 100 x (problem value), but problem value dominates.”

3. How to lose friends and influence no one: give an opinion on charter schools
David Leonhardt recently summarized some important new research on charter schools. A team of researchers led by Josh Angrist used the randomized school lottery in Boston to compare charter school students with their peers who applied, but were not able to attend. Boston is an important setting for this research because most charter schools in the city fit the “high expectations, high support” model familiar to most of us with friends in the charter world. The results were striking: the charter students do better on state tests, AP exams, SAT, and 4-year college attendance than their non-charter peers. The gap between black and white students’ math scores closes over the middle school years. The charter school applicants include the same share of special education students as the city at large, and subgroup analysis finds that special education students also do better at charter schools than traditional schools (original paper here).

On election day, Massachusetts voters overwhelmingly rejected a proposition to allow the state to approve up to 12 new charter schools per year. The argument against may be familiar: that charters siphon money from the traditional public school system. I always find this phrasing misleading. Yes, money leaves traditional public schools–because they are serving fewer children. This is a legitimate problem because school districts have lots of fixed spending commitments–especially buildings, multiyear contracts, and preexisting pension obligations–that can’t be reduced year-to-year when enrollment fluctuates. Figuring out how to share resources (e.g. through physical co-location, hiring district teachers, sharing the bus system) seems like an important step to make charter expansion financially viable.

And yes, as many critics have stated, it would theoretically be better to import the effective practices of Boston’s high-performing charters into the traditional public schools. I have become a major skeptic that this is possible. Few organizations are slower to change than public schools, in part because classrooms–where the action is–enjoy several layers of bureaucratic buffer from decisionmakers (here’s a good book on that). That’s not to say charter expansion would be a panacea; I am also skeptical that successful charter models like Boston’s Match, which rely on heroic efforts from poorly paid 20-somethings, can scale beyond their niche. In any case, a perusal of the top NYT reader comments on Leonhardt’s article reminds me how far I am from most liberals on this issue.

4. Radical markets
Economist Glen Weyl writes on Facebook about the coalitions that elect dangerous governments, citing Richard Evans’s history of the Third Reich and the fact that no more than 9% of German voters were committed anti-Semites. More interesting (and more hopeful), though, are Weyl’s remarks in the comments section about his current research agenda on ‘Radical Markets,’ or proposals to “address the crisis of the liberal order.” His five big ideas, to be discussed in a book with Eric Posner, are: quadratic voting, a voting system that gives extra weight to passionate minorities; increased immigration as a lever against global inequality; a new property tax system; ending the “conspiracy of capital” by which institutional investors encourage their holdings to engage in price fixing; and paying people for using their data, as Jaron Lanier has argued. I am sure I will end up opposing at least one of these ideas, but I am very pleased to see this kind of radical social innovation inside economics and can’t wait to read the book.

5. Debt: the next five thousand years
I’ve been enjoying Sinica, a podcast about Chinese politics, business, and culture. In a recent interview with Andy Rothman, an investment strategist focusing on Asian markets, I learned how to interpret a murky topic you sometimes see in the news: Chinese debt. Chinese debt is two and half times the size of the Chinese economy (which is about the same proportion as U.S. debt), and I occasionally see articles worrying about a Chinese financial crisis. The thing to understand, though, is that where America has had household debt problems in the recent past, almost all of China’s debt is corporate. To make matters more confusing, Chinese corporate debt isn’t even very similar to U.S. corporate debt, which is also a topic of some panic these days. Chinese corporate debt is perhaps better thought of as government stimulus. After the ’08 crisis, China conducted its own infrastructure stimulus program in the form of generous loans from state banks to state-owned companies. This is a more targeted form of stimulus than lowering interest rates, because you can just give money to the neediest companies, which in this case were mostly state-owned heavy manufacturing firms. Now, the state banks are either (a) writing off the bad debt or (b) transferring it to the balance sheets of government money managers. The bottom line, Rothman argues, is that while all this bad debt will certainly constrain the government’s resources in the future, there’s little risk of sudden default of the American homeowner variety.

6. Why can’t we be friends
The Washington Post did two great interviews with Kathy Cramer, a political scientist who wrote The Politics of Resentment about rural Republicans in Wisconsin. I highly recommend these interviews to those of you who struggle to get inside the heads of Trump voters. What I take from this is a picture of people who think politicians don’t care about them, don’t particularly like Trump personally, don’t know or think much about racial minorities or racial injustice, get information from Fox News and chain emails, are mostly unaware of Breitbart, care deeply about an ethic of deservingness, and resent being called stupid. In the past week, I’ve seen a lot of people conflate the terrifying rise in hate crimes emboldened by Trump’s victory with the motivations and preferences of the majority of his supporters. Although these issues share some overlap, I think they mostly call for two very different sets of responses. I was inspired by Cramer’s commonsense wisdom on bridging distrust:

So what happened to me is that, within three minutes, people knew I was a professor at UW-Madison, and they gave me an earful about the many ways in which that riled them up — and then we kept talking.

And then I would go back for a second visit, a third visit, a fourth, fifth and sixth. And we liked each other. Even at the end of my first visit, they would say, “You know, you’re the first professor from Madison I’ve ever met, and you’re actually kind of normal.” And we’d laugh. We got to know each other as human beings.

That’s partly about listening, and that’s partly about spending time with people from a different walk of life, from a different perspective. There’s nothing like it. You can’t achieve it through online communication. You can’t achieve it through having good intentions. It’s the act of being with other people that establishes the sense we actually are all in this together.

I would add that online communication seems to make this kind of divide much worse. In the past week, several of you have heard me muse about the need for more formalized national service–jobs programs for young people that, like the military of yesteryear, bring together people from different backgrounds to work together on common goals. Service Year, created by Stanley McChrystal, Alan Khazei, and others, looks to be the best effort in this direction. I’m curious about the demographics of the participants; I can imagine it being strong where military recruitment is weak, and vice versa. I’d like to think more about what would make this kind of program appealing for everyone.

The Eight(eenth) Brumaire of Donald Trump: Tragedy and Farce. Newsletter #8

Jeff’s Newsletter, Volume 8 

I had a bunch of regular links and books planned for this week, but I guess I was naive to expect a regular Wednesday. I’ve finally cobbled together some thoughts on the only topic worth discussing right now. 

Why did Trump win? You should be skeptical of any explanation that offers a single reason. To say that white voters elected Trump is a description, not an explanation. Jamelle Bouie, David Remnick, and others have written eloquently and harrowingly about the the victory of white ethnic nationalism. White nationalism is a real, dangerous force we must contend with. But I suspect it aptly characterizes only a portion of the Trump electorate. Moreover, I think the racism and xenophobia many voters express is largely epiphenomenal: very real and scary, to be clear, but a product of something more fundamental. My working theory is that rural whites have been motivated by cultural isolation and a sense of diminished status; they then project their anger indiscriminately onto various minority groups whose status seems to be rising. Now, I actually think misogyny gets incorrectly lumped together with racism and xenophobia even though these prejudices work in different ways. Rural America’s rejection of feminism seems harder to square with my diminished status story (and is thus perhaps more deeply-held). And the topic of misogyny brings us to the other half of Trump’s victory: Hillary Clinton. Fair or unfair, she was a tremendously unpopular candidate. Democrats must stock future primaries with more than one legitimate contender (hopefully including some younger candidates), and must take negatives more seriously when thinking about electability. My admittedly anecdotal sense is that Trump’s success among college-educated whites was due more to widespread distrust of Clinton than to his own appeal. 

Trump won. He owes it to some bad luck in how our population is distributed across the Electoral College, but he won. And his presidency will probably be very bad. One of the prevailing tropes in post-election soapboxing has been to reassure our liberal friends that this is just a setback, and we will keep fighting tomorrow, and the arc of the moral universe is long. You can hear President Obama’s next few speeches already. And while we have no option but to keep fighting for liberty, equality, and human flourishing, it’s only fair to acknowledge that dark times are ahead. Paul Ryan and Mike Pence will have free rein to govern. The executive agencies will be manned by a clown car of hateful has-beens (Rudy Giuliani), crooks (Chris Christie), and, well, clowns (Ben Carson). America will abandon its moral role as a voice for human rights and international cooperation, instead pursuing a cynical accommodationism towards Russia, China, and other autocratic regimes. And this is all without mentioning the illiberal politics of repression and vengeance that should be anyone’s worst fears. Can you imagine President Trump not using government resources to undermine his electoral opponent four years from now? 

It’s so important to enforce the rules of fair play because, on the merits, Democrats have a way better shot at the next two elections than Tuesday’s results might suggest (also, the popular vote). One thing we’ve learned is that politics is simply not about policy. It’s about validating people and boosting their status. In 2018 and 2020, Democrats can win over a large enough chunk of the Trump coalition. I suspect parts of the Bernie message will be necessary–a passion for common people, a devotion to reversing inequality, a fastidious avoidance of special interest ties. But where Bernie looked to the solutions of the past, I hope the next wave of Democrats can envision a future where all Americans have dignity, purpose, and security in a world upended by technology. Those may sound like buzzwords, but I’m trying to drive at a very specific idea: people find meaning and validation through both work and group identity, so political messages must operate simultaneously on economic and sociocultural levels. This is something I expect to write a lot about in future newsletters.


1. Get your takes, here!
If you’re not sick of hot takes on the election, there were plenty of good ones. Jamelle Bouie says this was white revanchism, pure and simple. I especially appreciate his historical frame, comparing Southern retrenchment after Reconstruction to white backlash post-Obama. David Remnick writes beautifully about being on the doorstep of fascism. He rebukes those who call liberals smug and out of touch, insisting that Trump deserves every name we’ve ever called him–but it’s not clear to me that both things can’t be true. Several months ago, Brian Beutler imagined two possibilities for a Trump presidency: the despotic one we’re all talking about, and one where Trump’s inconsistent policy preferences ease partisan division and lead to a clean fracture of the Republican party. It’s a convoluted, imaginative picture, but unfortunately I think Trump and the party leaders are well on their way to making peace, and Trump probably doesn’t hold his anti-conservative positions with much conviction, anyway. David Frum predicts how Trump’s apparatus of repression will fall into place: not by deliberate ideological design, but in response to journalistic investigations of his much more mundane efforts to shovel taxpayer money into Trump enterprises.  

2. Before they burn the books…
In the future, I’ll discuss books that suggest a path forward for liberals. Today, I thought I’d mention a few books that help us understand how we got here. Chris Hayes’s Twilight of the Elites has rightfully earned a lot of praise this election season for its prescience. Published in 2012, it argues that our belief in meritocracy has clouded the reality that a corrupt, incompetent Boomer elite has entrenched itself atop most significant institutions–and those institutions are failing. I have not yet read but will rush to read Kathy Cramer’s The Politics of Resentment. Set amid the Scott Walker saga, Cramer articulates a rural political consciousness rooted in resentment of urban elites. Finally, if you want to think deeply about ethnic nationalism, you can do no better than Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism.Organized in three sections, it can be read as three separate books. The first is a history of anti-Semitism–useful, we hope, mainly as history. The second, a history of ethnic nationalism in central and eastern Europe, explores how nationalist parties enact a sort of institutionalized racism. The final section is a catalogue of the techniques and practices of a totalitarian regime. I hope they remain unfamiliar.  

Seven Deadly Newsletters: #7

Jeff’s Newsletter, Volume 7

Thanks for joining for Week 7! This week I spent over 20 hours driving and thus consumed a lot of podcasts. The most fun part of this was burning through the back catalogue of the Stratechery podcast. I was a late arrival to Stratechery but can’t recommend it highly enough if you’re interested in technology and/or business strategy. On one level Ben Thompson is just an industry analyst, providing bull and bear views on the familiar tech giants. But he has an uncommonly deep view of the long-term evolution of the tech industry and is able to relate weekly product releases to this multi-decade narrative. It got me wondering: are there any similarly good analysts in other industries? Healthcare comes to mind because it’s so complicated. I would really value some weekly analysis putting pharmaceutical, hospital, insurance, and device company prospects in broader perspective. If you follow a great analyst in any industry, I’d love to hear about it. I’ll share interesting answers next week.

1. The horizontal horizon
Through all that listening I started to uncover Ben Thompson’s underlying theory of how the tech industry evolves. His most important concept is a distinction phrased alternatively as thick vs. thin clients, vertical vs. horizontal companies, or devices vs. services. A vertical company sells devices which they hope some customers will use exclusively. A horizontal company sells services which they hope everyone will use, regardless of device. At the peak of its dominance, Microsoft was a horizontal company: Windows on every PC, whether Compaq, Dell, or HP. In the next phase, vertiginously vertical Apple became the dominant company on the back of MacBooks and iPhones. Thompson’s theory of evolution is that the industry alternates between epochs of horizontal and vertical orientation, and that the dominant company in one era will always fail to adapt for the subsequent one. History accrues like a Jenga tower: horizontal and vertical layers stacked, alternating, on top of each other. He sees the iPhone as the peak of the current device era, carrying inside it the seeds of its own destruction. With the iPhone came immense data bandwidth. You no longer need a fast computer in your pocket; all the computation can take place in the cloud and stream results to cheaper devices as needed. So Thompson thinks there will never again be a product as expensive or dominant as the iPhone; instead we are entering a long horizontal era where the dominant companies will be those that provide cloud-based services.

In his view, this is the recipe for a world divided between Facebook and Amazon. The former dominates media and the latter dominates commerce. Both share a key similarity: they are very good at providing open-ended infrastructure (services) on which the rest of the world operates. To see how fundamental this idea is to all of Amazon’s ventures, check out this recent interview with Jeff Bezos. Amazon Web Services is the infrastructure for the web; Fulfillment by Amazon is the infrastructure for logistics; Alexa is meant to serve as the infrastructure for third-party AI assistant products; and Blue Origin as the infrastructure for third-party space entrepreneurship. If you buy all of this analysis, one move might be to sell Apple, which has only thrived in a device-centric world and has product worship built into its DNA. I adhere pretty strongly to investing in index funds and avoiding the hubris of stock-picking. This week, for the first time, I cracked and bought a few shares of Amazon.

2. Against against democracy
With less than a week to the election and the menace of Trump still afoot, it’s a fitting moment to reflect on our system of government by the people. In the New Yorker, Caleb Crain reviews the philosopher Jason Brennan’s recent bookAgainst Democracy. Brennan’s starting point is the observation that most people don’t know or care very much about policy. From this he concludes that a preferable system would be epistocracy: rule by the knowledgeable. Votes might be weighted by education level, or only a subset of the population would be allowed to vote. If this sounds regressive, you won’t be mollified by Brennan’s assumption that African-Americans would disproportionately not make the cut. Literacy testing rears its ugly head (Brennan says the distinction is that literacy tests were intentional exclusion, while his program would just entail incidental exclusion).

There are several strong philosophical objections to Brennan’s view. Crain channels Hannah Arendt to question the basic premise that some people have exclusive access to the Truth: claims to truth “preclude debate, and debate constitutes the very essence of political life.” Even if you grant that some people know better than others, you might still deny that this imparts political authority, as the philosopher David Estlund suggested: “You might be right, but who made you boss?” To these objections I would add Jeffrey Green’s book The Eyes of the People, which I discusseda few weeks ago. It’s striking to note how that book and Against Democracy depart from the same initial observation that the people don’t have consistent, informed preferences. But Eyes of the People makes an important distinction: giving power to the people does not necessarily entail magnifying their voices at the ballot box. In Green’s ocular model for democracy, the people wield power by scrutinizing politicians in public fora and shaming them for bad behavior. In any case, I think ignorance is not the biggest problem with the American electorate. More serious is the social gap between the Blue Tribe and Red Tribe, and the lack of a coherent vision of national unity and national interest that results. If you don’t value your fellow citizens and see each other as stuck in the same boat, no amount of instrumental rationality will help.

3. MTV Cribs, inside my ballot edition
One reason voter ignorance is not crippling is that we mostly have a representative democracy. When we veer closer to direct democracy, the problem grows. Welcome to the spooky, scary world of California ballot propositions. This week, I filled out my vote-by-mail ballot. That process required researching 17 statewide ballot propositions. I thought I’d share my decisions; if not slightly useful for undecided California voters, hopefully interesting for the rest of us to consider what kind of policy can emerge from direct democracy. I will state right away that I am generally opposed to ballot initiatives, as should be clear from my comments on ocular vs. vocal democracy. Most initiatives are written by special interests and the public does not have the time to read the fine print. Complex policymaking should be left to the legislators we elect for that purpose, even when it’s inevitably frustrating that they don’t move fast enough. That said, working through these 17 propositions helped clarify for me the circumstances in which propositions are valuable. I’ll summarize my working theory at the end. For each proposition, I’ll share my yes/no vote, an argument, and an opinion on whether this is a fair question for the ballot. In researching this, I owe thanks toBallotpedia, which puts together a great resource with arguments pro/con and excerpts from newspaper endorsements, and to Kevin Drum, who shares much of my policy orientation including a staunch opposition to ballot initiatives.

  • Prop 51: $9 Billion Bond for School Construction. I like funding schools. But this is a handout to developers and construction companies; ongoing funding for school maintenance should be built into the budget rather than one-off bonds; and large, savvy districts will disproportionately dip into this statewide pot–precisely those districts most capable of issuing their own bonds. I vote No. Should not be on the ballot.
  • Prop 52: Medi-Cal Hospital Fee. This would prevent the state from moving any money that comes in through hospital fees out of Medi-Cal (Medicaid) and into the General Fund. Medi-Cal is an important program, but voters shouldn’t be running the state budget. That’s the legislature’s job. I vote No. Should not be on the ballot.
  • Prop 53: Voter Approval for all Revenue Bonds Over $2B. This would require voters to weigh in on all large bonds. We don’t want to let voters handcuff the state from getting anything done! I vote No. Interestingly, this is probably an appropriate ballot question because it’s a meta-level question about the role of voters vs. the state.
  • Prop 54: Legislative Transparency. This would require all amendments to state bills to be published online 72 hours before a vote. It would interfere with legislators’ ability to get last-minute deals together (and give lobbyists time to intervene). We should also be skeptical that this idea is funded nearly 100% by a single billionaire, Charles Munger Jr. Is this really a problem anyone else noticed? I vote No. As a matter of legislative process, I acknowledge that yes, this is a fair thing to have an initiative about.
  • Prop 55: Extending Top Income Tax. this would extend a previous proposition that temporarily raised income taxes in the highest bracket. I support this kind of tax, but we need more stable fixes to the tax structure and should not get in the habit of devising tax policy through the ballot. I vote No. Should not be on the ballot.
  • Prop 56: Cigarette Tax. California has relatively low cigarette taxes; this would increase them by $2/pack. This will save lives. It’s too bad the revenue is earmarked for specific programs. But I vote Yes. This shouldn’t be on the ballot, but given that it exists I’ll do the right thing.
  • Prop 57: Parole for Nonviolent Felons. CA is under federal order to reduce its overcrowded prison population. This is a sensible way to do it. I vote Yes. This is a fair question for the ballot, particularly because it has such simple, transparent implications.
  • Prop 58: Allow Non-English Education. This would repeal a previous ballot initiative which–say no more. I vote Yes. In that it repeals a proposition, this is a fair question for the ballot.
  • Prop 59: Advisory Question to Overturn Citizens United. This would “encourage” the state to do what it can to overturn Citizens United. This is a waste of time. There are lots of other ways to signal your opposition to Citizens United, like voting for senators and presidents. I vote No. This should not be on the ballot.
  • Prop 60: Require Condoms in Pornographic Film. What it sounds like. This is such a specific regulation; clearly an example of ballot overreach. There is also some evidence that it’s bad on the merits in the context of other health precautions that exist in the pornography industry. But that’s the point–few of us know enough to casually regulate that industry. I vote No. This should not be on the ballot.
  • Prop 61: Prescription Drug Pricing Standards. This would forbid California agencies from paying any more than the VA does for individual prescription drugs. See Ted Lee’s excellent article to explore the complicated implications–national implications–of this proposal. There are likely to be major unintended consequences for drug prices and drug availability in California and nationwide. Such a thing should not be resolved by initiative. A legislative approach gives more latitude for amendment and revision. I vote No.
  • Prop 62: Repeal Death Penalty. The simplicity of this proposal makes it appropriate for the ballot. Moreover, it’s the kind of moral question which our full citizenry is better equipped to decide than technocrats. And I agree strongly on the merits. I vote Yes.
  • Prop 63: Background Checks for Ammunition. This probably won’t accomplish much since the legislature just passed a similar law, but it can’t hurt. I’ve heard the argument that even those of us concerned about gun violence should vote no because this will disproportionately criminalize minorities. Unfortunately, that argument applies to any otherwise sensible increase in policing dangerous activities. We should strive to make policing more equitable, not refuse to police. I vote Yes. But I think this is probably not a good ballot question.
  • Prop 64: Legalize Marijuana. This one was surprisingly tough for me. I support it from a criminal justice standpoint, am worried about it from a public health standpoint, and get the sense this proposition is badly written from a regulatory standpoint (in deciding how to tax marijuana and how to apportion the proceeds). Some opponents say marijuana is already semi-legal, so why rush to legalize it through the ballot? But there are stillplenty of felony marijuana arrests, even while misdemeanors have plummeted. Perhaps the deciding factor for me is the likely implication for Mexican cartels–prices will continue to drop, and they’ll be driven out of the marijuana business (on the other hand, there is evidence that they are already switching to heroin). I vote Yes. I think this is a fair ballot question with respect to matters of legality and illegality, but dangerous with respect to taxation and regulation.
  • Prop 65: Earmark Proceeds for Plastic Bag Ban. Assuming Prop 67 passes, this would earmark the proceeds of a bag tax to specific causes. Again, I oppose ballot-box budgeting. I vote No. This should not be on the ballot.
  • Prop 66: Death Penalty Procedures. This would supersede Prop 62, keep the death penalty, and create new procedures for handling death row cases. Obviously I am opposed on the merits. I vote No. And since this goes beyond the simple yes/no question on the death penalty and gets into details of how the legal system should work, I do not think this should be on the ballot.
  • Prop 67: Plastic Bag Ban. This is just a referendum to uphold something the legislature already passed. I don’t really care about the plastic bag issue, but it seems reasonable to uphold something the legislature evidently cares about and that only the plastic bag industry is fighting. I vote Yes. Because of the simple legal/illegal distinction, I think this is a fair ballot question.
In summary, I voted “yes” seven out of seventeen times. Three times I let my strong normative preference outweigh the fact that something was an inappropriate initiative (cigarettes, marijuana, ammunition); twice it was a criminal justice matter (parole, death penalty); and twice it was simply affirming a previous legislative move or rejecting a previous ballot initiative, and therefore consistent with my opposition to ballot initiatives (bilingual education, plastic bag ban). My takeaway is that ballot propositions are reasonable in four situations: (a) really simple questions, which usually reduce to whether something should be legal or illegal; (b) especially criminal justice matters, which are often in large part moral questions, appropriate for direct public deliberation; (c) changes to government structure or process, because legislators and executives will never elect to change themselves; and (d) repealing old ballot propositions. Inappropriate, then, are propositions about taxation, budgeting, and industry-specific regulation.

The Sixth Sense of Newsletters: #6

Jeff’s Newsletter, Volume 6

Welcome to the sixth episode of this newsletter. I love hearing thoughts and reactions from you all. If you think a friend would enjoy this, please feel free to forward it along.

This week’s sign of the apocalypse

1. Liberty and disruption for all
Ben Thompson’s Stratechery blog and podcast are consistently among my favorite places to learn about the business of technology. The content is usually strictly in the Facebook/Google/Microsoft/Oracle realm, so it was striking when this week’s podcast conversation made a hard pivot toward politics. Thompson and James Allworth had started off talking about the newspaper business, discussing a recent argument that maybe newspapers made a big mistake by moving to emphasize online content in the past decade, sowing the seeds of their own destruction. Thompson disagrees vehemently; there’s nothing the newspapers could have done. In his view, the main implication of the Internet (in many industries) has been a massive increase in competition. By writing a news/analysis blog, Ben Thompson is competing directly with newspapers. My time is limited, and I’d much rather read Stratechery than the San Francisco Chronicle’s business section. From this conversation they moved on to discuss disruption more generally–yes, I hate to use that smarmy word, disruption, but in this case it’s technically appropriate. From a societal perspective, the paradox of disruption is that it brings us great new stuff while leaving incumbents in the lurch. Wishing for the best of both worlds, Thompson got exasperated: “Where’s the pro-safety net, anti-regulation party?”

There’s a rallying cry for my own brand of politics. And I think this is more than an arbitrary pair of pillars for a political philosophy. I would reframe “pro-safety net, anti-regulation” as a simultaneous attentiveness to positive and negative conceptions of liberty. As you may begin to notice, nearly everything I write is ultimately about positive and/or negative liberty, so I won’t say much more on this right here. But, for the uninitiated, negative liberty is the absence of coercion or constraint; positive liberty is the opportunity to take control of one’s life and act out one’s free will. Those who rail against excessive regulation are concerned about negative liberty; those who call for social supports seek to build up positive liberty. Figuring out how to balance these two goods has, at certain narrow idyllic windows in our past, been the focus of our politics.

2. Thanks, Obama
Of course, it’s difficult to speak coherently about “regulation” as the term refers to many different things. Two of the best reasons to regulate, in my view, are (a) to block monopolistic consolidation, and (b) to limit externalities that threaten public health and safety. Recent essays reviewing the Obama administration’s efforts in two major industries remind us that, thanks to mighty lobbyists, we do too little of either.

First, ProPublica has a thoroughly reported piece on the Justice Department’s process of approving the American-United airline merger. Let me be on the record for the hundredth time that ProPublica is the crown jewel of American journalism. The story details how the Justice Department went from “Increasing consolidation among large airlines has hurt passengers” to approving the deal with few restrictions just a few months later. Rahm Emanuel was a key player: he wrote a letter to top Justice officials arguing in favor of the merger. The letter, it turns out, was drafted by American’s lobbyists. In the past I’ve been reluctant to sign on when people call Rahm and similar Democrats corporate shills, but it’s hard to turn a blind eye here. And politicians weren’t the airlines’ only allies. The flight attendants union was an important supporter of the merger. At least one reason for their support became clear when the union chief quit and took a new job as a consultant for American.

Second, Michael Pollan writes about the administration’s failure to take on Big Food despite Michelle Obama’s symbolic commitment to the issue. The Department of Agriculture has an antitrust enforcement division which would like to cut down on anticompetitive pricing by meat, dairy, and seed behemoths. But Congress has stripped funding from the division several years in a row. In line with one of Michelle Obama’s signature issues, the administration proposed a set of marketing rules to limit how much fat and sugar could be marketed to children. It’s no surprise that the Republican House killed the proposed guidelines, but even the food industry’s chief lobbyist for household grocery brands was “frankly surprised the administration never came back with a revised set of guidelines.” Pollan isn’t too hard on the Obamas, acknowledging that public opinion lags behind their ambitions. I’m filing this away as one unremarkable example of what we mean when we talk about the disproportionate lobbying effort devoted to special interests instead of the public.

3. No one’s down with TPP
On Ezra Klein’s podcast, Joseph Stiglitz added one data point to my growing belief that all Baby Boomer progressive intellectuals default to the same set of solutions for income inequality. I probably owe the germ of this idea to Yuval Levin, who in Fractured Republic accuses conservatives of being stuck in nostalgia for the Reagan era and liberals, stuck in nostalgia for the Great Society. Whenever I listen to Stiglitz, or Robert Reich, or Bernie Sanders, I find them extremely persuasive on the role of financialization and financial deregulation in generating the inequality we know today. But it’s difficult to recreate the past by rolling back the elements of the last 40 years you don’t like and expecting all else to be the same. This is part of what I hear when these thinkers talk about solutions, which usually center around increasing the minimum wage and reinvigorating unions. To be clear, I don’t think these are necessarily bad ideas. I also know plenty of young people who are enthusiastic about them! But I am very skeptical that they are sufficient to address the effects of globalization and technological change that have also contributed to today’s income distribution, much less the further effects to come. Klein tried to tempt him in a more imaginative direction with a question about basic income. Stiglitz’s response was tepid, offering some praise but not much interest.

By the way, here’s a tremendous Atlantic story (h/t Catherine O.) on how Democratic politicians of the Boomer era abandoned populism. This is intimately related to my previous posts about Brandeis, Humphrey, and rise of corporate liberalism. It’s also useful background for why someone like Stiglitz instinctively reaches for Big Labor (rather than, say, trust-busting) as a counterweight to Big Business. The author makes a compelling case that conservative legal scholar Robert Bork’s ideas–monopolies are good as long as they deliver low prices–successfully infiltrated the Left. I’d like to read more about this ideological shift; David Frum has a book about the ’70s that might be useful here.

The most interesting part of the conversation was a detailed back-and-forth over the Trans-Pacific Partnership. If you’ve been following the TPP debate, you know that the most contentious issue (the basis for Elizabeth Warren’s vocal opposition) is the Investor-State Dispute Settlement (ISDS) system. This is a legal framework that lets multinational companies sue governments (in a private court judged by corporate lawyers) whose regulations hurt their profits (BuzzFeed had the best investigation into how this works). Klein pressed Stiglitz on the ISDS issue; Obama administration officials have acknowledged concerns and assured him (Klein) that the agreement allows the United States to regulate on a set of enumerated health, safety, and other grounds without fear of suit. Stiglitz brought up a passage that makes an exemption for regulating tobacco companies–why does there need to be such an exemption, he countered, if we’re allowed to regulate other industries (see one answer here)? As you can tell, this quickly got deep in the weeds. It left me thinking that nobody but an international trade lawyer could possibly make an informed decision to support or oppose TPP. One consequence of regulating based on exceptions and carve-outs, it seems, is that democratic debate becomes impossible. This reminds me of a story I heard that Milton Friedman claimed to oppose NAFTA because it wasn’t “really a free trade deal”–a real free trade deal could be printed on a single sheet of paper.

4. IQ: No longer racist; still not helpful
The book Hive Mind argues that while IQ may be a problematic measure for individuals, it’s a very reliable measure for entire nations and can predict all sorts of national development outcomes. By skipping over discussion of individual-level IQ, Garett Jones pulls of the tricky accomplishment of turning one of the most controversial, taboo topics in social science into fair grounds for research. Jones talks about IQ in a way that sidesteps a lot of the flaws in The Bell Curve. These days, IQ is usually measured with abstract spatial reasoning tests, so it’s probably not a function of language or cultural familiarity with the test. It tends to go up a lot over few generations, so it’s probably not fixed in place based on race. What is the cause of IQ gains? This is the huge elephant in the room throughout the book. Childhood nutrition seems to play an important but small role. The mental stress of poverty may be important. Education seems not to make much of a difference. The big question for me–the question that determines whether this book matters, whether it’s worthwhile to talk about IQ–is whether increasing IQ is a mechanical consequence of all the other development policies we already like. In other words, does focusing on IQ imply any different policies? Hive Mind has no answers here. Instead, most of the book is devoted to exploring why entire nations of high-IQ people might be better off than the sum of their parts would suggest. I’d summarize the argument like this: high-IQ people are able to obey economic rationality. So much of economic theory demands that people make calculations: of the optimal cooperative outcome in a prisoner’s dilemma, of the most efficient Coasean bargain, of the most rational way to vote, and of the most rational way to govern. In all of these situations, people must consider the long term and deny immediate gratification. Individual-level IQ research suggests that IQ and patience are highly correlated, so by extension Jones argues that entire high-IQ nations will be patient in their collective affairs. I find this a painfully reductive way to think about the formation of civic and political institutions. Jones has strong evidence that, at the national level, IQ is correlated with prosperity and good governance. But I’m going to need a better argument than a reification of rationality to consider it causal.