And now for the mid-term elections

This from The Washington Post:

Facebook has removed fake accounts, possibly from Russia, that may have tried to influence the midterm elections. The company banned 32 accounts and pages on Facebook and Instagram after identifying what it called “coordinated inauthentic behavior.” The accounts and pages spent about $11,000 in advertising to promote posts that focused on divisive topics ranging from abolishing ICE to a “Unite the Right” rally in Washington, D.C. According to the New York Times, Facebook officials told lawmakers that Russia may be behind the campaign, but had yet to confirm the country’s involvement. The news comes after a Russian troll farm, known as the Internet Research Agency, (IRA) was accused of purposely interfering in the 2016 election. In a statement, Facebook said that “It’s clear that whoever set up these accounts went to much greater lengths” to hide their true identities than IRA did in the past.

Why populism dooms societies to technological obsolescence

Interesting essay by Ricardo Hausmann, a former minister of planning of Venezuela who is now an academic at Harvard. His argument is basically that societies which impose an ethnic rather than a civic idea of citizenship inevitably doom themselves to technological backwardness. The reason is that

implementing many technologies also requires ingredients that can be provided only through non-market mechanisms, and here governments play a critical role. Consider high-speed rail. Without government authorization and cooperation, no private company can build a rail line. Western Europe has more than 14,000 kilometers (8,700 miles) of high-speed rail, and China has over 25,000. The United States claims to have 56 kilometers, in a short stretch that covers less than 8% of the distance between Boston and Washington, DC. The reason is obvious: this is a technology that, like the electric car, requires a social decision and a government that enables that choice.

In short, technology requires a society that connects to the world, both through trade and openness to talent, in order to exploit the gains from modularization. It also requires a society that is able to develop a shared sense of purpose, one that is deep and powerful enough to direct the government to provide the public goods that new technologies require. The first requirement is facilitated by a society having a broader and more inclusive sense of who is a member. The second is facilitated by a deeper and more meaningful sense of membership.

Developing these attitudes is not easy. It requires a civic rather than an ethnic sense of nationhood. This is why the stakes in today’s policy debates in the West are not just about values. In a competitive world, societies pay dearly for being unable – or unwilling – to deliver what technology wants.

The Spanish Empire made the choice to expel the Jews and the Moors from its realm in the late fifteenth century. It tried and failed to impose its intolerance on its dominions in the Low Countries in the sixteenth century. But after an 80-year bloody war of independence, the Netherlands emerged as a beacon of tolerance and attracted some of Europe’s greatest talent, from Descartes to Spinoza. Not surprisingly, it became the world’s richest country during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

It’s a good essay, marred only by Hausmann’s inexplicable endorsement of Kevin Kelly’s daft book, What Technology Wants.

Zuckerberg’s monster

This morning’s Observer column:

Who – or what – is Mark Zuckerberg? Obviously he’s the founder and CEO of Facebook, which is, in theory, a public company but is in fact his fiefdom, as a casual inspection of the company’s SEC filings confirms. They show that his ownership of the controlling shares means that he can do anything he likes, including selling the company against the wishes of all the other shareholders combined.

But the fact that Zuck wields autocratic power over a huge corporation doesn’t quite get the measure of him. A better metaphor is that he is the Dr Frankenstein de nos jours. Readers of Mary Shelley’s great 19th-century novel will know the story: of how an ingenious scientist – Dr Victor Frankenstein – creates a grotesque but sentient creature in an unorthodox scientific experiment. Repulsed by the monster he has made, Frankenstein flees, but finds that he cannot escape his creation. In the end, Frankenstein dies of exposure in the Arctic, pursuing the monster who has murdered his bride. We never learn what happened to the creature.

Facebook is Zuckerberg’s monster. Unlike Frankenstein, he is still enamoured of his creation, which has made him richer than Croesus and the undisputed ruler of an empire of 2.2 billion users. It has also given him a great deal of power, together with the responsibilities that go with it. But it’s becoming increasingly clear that his creature is out of control, that he’s uneasy about the power and has few good ideas about how to discharge his responsibilities…

Read on

Things are not going to improve any time soon

From John Cassidy:

If you thought that Donald Trump’s bowing and scraping to Vladimir Putin in Helsinki would put a big dent in his approval ratings, think again. Two new polls suggest that the President standing next to his Russian counterpart and publicly questioning U.S. intelligence findings about Russian interference in the 2016 election didn’t change anything much. That’s a testament to the unprecedented level of polarization in the American electorate. And it suggests that, as the midterms get closer, Trump will descend further into race-baiting and demagoguery as a way to keep his supporters engaged.

The weekly Gallup poll, which was released on Monday afternoon, estimated Trump’s approval rating at forty-two per cent, which represents a drop of one percentage point from the previous week. The latest Wall Street Journal/NBC News survey, which was released over the weekend, put Trump’s rating at forty-five per cent—a one-point gain since last month. Since there are substantial margins of error attached to both polls, the over-all picture that they draw is one of stasis. Most Americans disapprove of the rogue President, but Trump’s base of support remains solid, and it encompasses more than eight in ten self-identified Republicans…

The only development that might change things is if the Republicans do badly in the mid-term elections. At that point they may decide that Trump has outlived his usefulness to them. (Just as the GOP decided Joe McCarthy’s fate in the 1950s.) We’ll have to wait and see.

So what’s the problem with Facebook?

Interesting NYT piece by Kevin Roose in which he points out that the key question about regulating Facebook is not that lawmakers know very little about how it works, but whether they have the political will to regulate it. My hunch is that they don’t, but if they did then the first thing to do would be fix on some clear ideas about what’s wrong with the company.

Here’s the list of possibilities cited by Roose:

  • Is it that Facebook is too cavalier about sharing user data with outside organizations?
  • Is it that Facebook collects too much data about users in the first place?
  • Is it that Facebook is promoting addictive messaging products to children?
  • Is it that Facebook’s news feed is polarizing society, pushing people to ideological fringes?
  • Is it that Facebook is too easy for political operatives to exploit, or that it does not do enough to keep false news and hate speech off users’ feeds?
  • Is it that Facebook is simply too big, or a monopoly that needs to be broken up?

How about: all of the above?

Kissinger on Trump: the long view

The FT‘s Edward Luce took Henry Kissinger out to lunch. Fascinating interview (behind a paywall) in the weekend edition of the paper. Luce tried manfully to get the old growler to talk about Trump — without much success. But there are two gems in his report.

One was Kissinger’s view on how the world looks to Putin. He embarks, reports Luce,

on a disquisition about Russia’s “almost mystical” tolerance for suffering. His key point is that the west wrongly assumed in the years before Putin annexed Crimea that Russia would accept the west’s rules-based order. Nato misread Russia’s deep-seated craving for respect. “The mistake Nato has made is to think that there is a sort of historic evolution that will march across Eurasia and not to understand that somewhere on that march it will encounter something very different to a Westphalian entity. And for Russia this is a challenge to its identity.”

So, asks Luce, “do you mean that we provoked Putin?” To which Kissinger replies “I do not think Putin is a character like Hitler. He comes out of Dostoyevsky”.

The second gem comes when — eventually — Luce manages to coax something about Trump out of his enigmatic guest.

“I think Trump may be one of those figures in history who appears from time to time to mark the end of an era and to force it to give up its old pretences. It doesn’t necessarily mean that he knows this, or that he is considering any great alternative. It could just be an accident.”

A farewell to China

From an interesting parting shot by an American libertarian academic who has taught in China for some years and is now returning home.

China is a rising power but probably more importantly is a deeply illiberal, expansionist, authoritarian, police state opposed to human rights, democracy, free trade, and rule of law. Just as we need to consider the state, speed, and direction of change in the United States, China has been deeply illiberal authoritarian for many years, is becoming increasingly illiberal, and is accelerating the pace of change towards greater control. It both puzzles and concerns me having lived in China for nearly a decade as a public employee to hear Polyanna statements from China “experts” in the United States who talk about the opening and reform of China or refuse to consider the values being promoted. I was left mouth agape once when someone I would consider a liberal internationalist who values human rights informed me he was focused on business and would leave those other issues aside. The values represented by China cannot be divorced from its rise and influence. The rise of China represents a clear and explicit threat not to the United States but to the entirety of liberal democracy, human rights, and open international markets.

We see the world slowly being divided into China supported authoritarian regimes of various stripes that support its creeping illiberalism across a range of areas. The tragedy of modern American foreign policy is the history of active ignorance and refusal to actively confront the Chinese norm or legal violations. The Trump administration is utterly incapable of defending the values and assembling the coalition that would respond to American leadership as they face even greater threats from China.

The concern is not over Chinese access to technology to facilitate economic development for a liberal open state. The concern is over the use of technology to facilitate human rights violations and further cement closed markets. That is a threat for which neither the United States or any other democracy loving country should apologize for.

Even while making allowances for the author’s ideological position, some of his observations about everyday like in China are fascinating — at least to me. For example:

One of the most interesting thing to me was to see how my thinking evolved over time in China. Prior to coming, I was and still am a libertarian leaning professor. I had not given a lot of thought to human rights either in the United States or in China. While many are aware of a variety of the cases that receive attention, I think what struck me is how this filters down into the culture. There is a complete and utter lack of respect for the individual or person in China. People do not have innate value as people simply because they exist. This leads most directly to a lack of respect for the law/rules/norms.

One thing I began to realize over time is, while not German, how law, rule, and norm abiding Americans are with minimal fear of enforcement. Cutting in line [I think this means barging in] is considered extremely rude because there is a sense of fairness and that people have equal rights. In China, line cutting is considered nearly standard operating procedure. There is a common and accepted respect for others even if just it is as simple as standing in line.

In a way, I sympathize with Chairman Xi’s emphasis on rule of law because in my experience laws/rules/norms are simply ignored. They are ignored quietly so as not to embarrass the enforcer, however, frequently, the enforcer knows rules or laws are being ignored but so long as the breaker is not egregious, both parties continue to exist in a state of blissful ignorance. Honesty without force is not normal but an outlier. Lying is utterly common, but telling the truth revolutionary.

I rationalize the silent contempt for the existing rules and laws within China as people not respecting the method for creating and establishing the rules and laws. Rather than confronting the system, a superior, or try good faith attempts to change something, they choose a type of quiet subversion by just ignoring the rule or law. This quickly spreads to virtually every facet of behavior as everything can be rationalized in a myriad of ways.

Before coming to China, I had this idea that China was rigid which in some ways it is, but in reality it is brutally chaotic because there are no rules it is the pure rule of the jungle with unconstrained might imposing their will and all others ignoring laws to behave as they see fit with no sense of morality or respect for right.

If it’s the case — and I believe it is — that American’s position as a global hegemon is eroding, and that China might be its successor, then it’s worth thinking about what that might mean. While many of us are sceptical about — or critical of — aspects of American dominance, we understand and to some extent share many of the values that the Republic embodies (or aspires to). Coming to grips with Chinese hegemony will be traumatic, unless the West has been softened up by generations of home-grown authoritarian rule. (Now a distinct possibility for some of our democracies, I fear). It will be like living in a parallel universe which has a different kind of gravity.

Let’s get real

I’m increasingly irritated by British (and US) media’s shock-and-horror reaction to every latest Trump outrage. It’s as if reporters (and their editors) still can’t believe that the US has a delusional criminal as its president. Which is why I warmed to Todd Gitlin’s rant in the Columbia Journalism Review:

Trump is not just eccentric, ignorant, vicious, self-dealing, and preeningly deceptive. He doesn’t just lie—not randomly. He may or may not be delusional. He has long surrounded himself with criminals. His history of racketeering connections and his lies about them was reported decades ago by Wayne Barrett and other reporters, though subsequently discarded presumably because it was “old news.”

But the core of the matter now is what leads a former director of the CIA not only to call the president of the United States “treasonous” and ‘imbecilic” but to say he “rises to and exceeds the threshold of ‘high crimes & misdemeanors.’” Whenever asked a straight question about his relationship to Putin and Putin’s cronies, Trump has ducked, scammed, and systematically obscured the findings of God knows how many professional investigators and investigative reporters. Is it not time that when faced with these facts, journalists stop asking fatuous questions? Should they not adopt, as a working hypothesis going in, the assumption that his lies and evasions are clear hints of what drives him?


The key to understanding Trump’s psychosis

If there is a single unifying thread in Trump’s splenetic surges, it is a visceral hatred of Barack Obama. It started early — with Trump becoming a leader of the ‘birther’ conspiracy theory — and it’s got worse with every passing year. He’s still obsessed with Obama and everything he stood for and did as president. (Including appointing Hillary Clinton as Secretary of State.)

So what’s at the root of this psychosis?

Answer: Obama’s elegant mockery of him at the 2011 White House Correspondents’ Dinner. For a narcissist like Trump, this was a truly traumatic experience. And now the US — and the rest of the world (apart from Russia) is paying for it.

LATER Some people think that the humiliation at the dinner was the reason Trump decided to run for President. But that seems unlikely — as the WashPo pointed out. Also, I seem to remember that he gave an interview years ago to Polly Toynbee in which he talked about running.