What happens when free trade’s ‘losers’ realise that Trump can’t help them?

Sombre column by Dani Rodrik on the new conventional wisdom that’s evolved as a response to the populist surge. “Gone are the confident assertions”, he writes, “that globalization benefits everyone: we must, the elites now concede, accept that globalization produces both winners and losers”. He quotes Nouriel Roubini’s assertion that the backlash against globalization “can be contained and managed through policies that compensate workers for its collateral damage and costs. Only by enacting such policies will globalization’s losers begin to think that they may eventually join the ranks of its winners.”

The problem is that even if one accepts that Trump was genuinely concerned by the plight of the victims of globalisation who voted for him (a big ‘if’, given his narcissism), he cannot actually do anything to help because he is himself a prisoner of a Republican Congress that has no intention of doing anything other than buttressing the interests of the wealthy.

Conventional wisdom about finding ways of helping those ‘left behind’ by globalization, writes Rodrik,

presumes that the winners are motivated by enlightened self-interest – that they believe buy-in from the losers is essential to maintain economic openness. Trump’s presidency has revealed an alternative perspective: globalization, at least as currently construed, tilts the balance of political power toward those with the skills and assets to benefit from openness, undermining whatever organized influence the losers might have had in the first place. Inchoate discontent about globalization, Trump has shown, can easily be channeled to serve an altogether different agenda, more in line with elites’ interests.

As far as the US is concerned, the game’s up. What happens, one wonders, when the angry brigade realise that they have been royally screwed?

If something can be done, then…

This morning’s Observer column:

The biggest impediments to automation are the practical difficulties that tech evangelists tend to ignore. Some of them have already sussed that self-driving cars are a distant prospect because their regulatory and infrastructural requirements are so complex. That’s why much of the excitement in the industry is now focused on trucks. It’s easy to see how autonomous “truck trains” could work on motorways, and indeed there have already been trials of such convoys.

The trouble starts when the vehicle has to leave the motorway in order to reach its final destination. Suddenly the truck faces the same obstacles as the self-driving car. So maybe it will be necessary to have human pilots to take it that last mile safely, just as ships have pilots to guide them into harbour. That’s also why we are unlikely to see autonomous white vans any time soon: their drivers do much more than simply drive – just like those DHL guys in Venice. So perhaps tech determinists need to revise their mantra: if something can be done, then it may be done – provided the economics and the practicalities are right.

Read on

Sexism and gender bias in Silicon Valley

Even the Economist gets it:

For a set of people who finance disruptive firms, venture capitalists are surprisingly averse to disrupting their own tried-and-tested way of doing things. They sit in small groups, meet entrepreneurs and repeat a single formula for investing whenever possible. John Doerr, who backed companies like Google, summed up his philosophy thus: “Invest in white male nerds who’ve dropped out of Harvard or Stanford.”

Defenders of the valley have two retorts. One is that throwing stones at the most successful business cluster on Earth makes no sense. Market forces ensure that the best ideas win funding, irrespective of gender. The data suggest a different story. Only 7% of the founders of tech startups in America that raised $20m or more are women, according to recent research by Bloomberg. Yet nobody would argue that men make the best founders nine times out of ten. On average, firms founded by women obtain less funding ($77m) than those founded by men ($100m). The VC industry has been successful enough to ward off the pressure to change. That does not make it perfect.

A second defence is that VCs rely on tight-knit relationships, in which trust is essential. Call this the “dinner with Mike Pence” gambit, after the American vice-president’s reported refusal to eat alone with a woman other than his wife. On this argument, any outsider, particularly one lacking a Y chromosome, is liable to upset the club’s precious dynamic. Venture capital is indeed a strange mix of capital and contacts, and peculiarly hard to industrialise as a result. But as a justification for sexism, clubbiness is an argument that is as old as it is thin…

Yep. But when will society wake up to the fact that a technology that is changing everyone’s lives — male and female — is designed and financed by a tiny male only elite?

How to do invective

From H.L. Mencken’s obit of William Jennings Bryan who was three times the Democratic candidate for President of the US, and the 41st Secretary of State but who was also a major opponent of Darwinism and a witness in the 1925 Scopes trial:

When I first encountered him, on the sidewalk in front of the office of the rustic lawyers who were his associates in the Scopes case, the trial was yet to begin, and so he was still expansive and amiable. I had printed in the Nation, a week or so before, an article arguing that the Tennessee anti-evolution law, whatever its wisdom, was at least constitutional – that the yahoos of the State had a clear right to have their progeny taught whatever they chose, and kept secure from whatever knowledge violated their superstitions. The old boy professed to be delighted with the argument, and gave the gaping bystanders to understand that I was a publicist of parts. Not to be outdone, I admired the preposterous country shirt that he wore – sleeveless and with the neck cut very low. We parted in the manner of two ambassadors.

But that was the last touch of amiability that I was destined to see in Bryan. The next day the battle joined and his face became hard. By the end of the week he was simply a walking fever. Hour by hour he grew more bitter. What the Christian Scientists call malicious animal magnetism seemed to radiate from him like heat from a stove. From my place in the courtroom, standing upon a table, I looked directly down upon him, sweating horribly and pumping his palm-leaf fan. His eyes fascinated me; I watched them all day long. They were blazing points of hatred. They glittered like occult and sinister gems. Now and then they wandered to me, and I got my share, for my reports of the trial had come back to Dayton, and he had read them. It was like coming under fire.

Thus he fought his last fight, thirsting savagely for blood. All sense departed from him. He bit right and left, like a dog with rabies. He descended to demagogy so dreadful that his very associates at the trial table blushed. His one yearning was to keep his yokels hated up – to lead his forlorn mob of imbeciles against the foe. That foe, alas, refused to be alarmed. It insisted upon seeing the whole battle as a comedy. Even [Clarence] Darrow, who knew better, occasionally yielded to the prevailing spirit. One day he lured poor Bryan into the folly I have mentioned: his astounding argument against the notion that man is a mammal. I am glad I heard it, for otherwise I’d never believe it. There stood the man who had been thrice a candidate for the Presidency of the Republic – there he stood in the glare of the world, uttering stuff that a boy of eight would laugh at. The artful Darrow led him on: he repeated it, ranted for it, bellowed it in his cracked voice. So he was prepared for the final slaughter. He came into life a hero, a Galahad, in bright and shining armor. He was passing out a poor mountebank.

Lovely term, that: mountebank.

Bob Taylor RIP

Bob Taylor, the man who funded the Arpanet (the military precursor of the Internet), has died at the age of 85. He also funded much of Doug Engelbart’s ‘augmentation’ research at SRI. After Arpanet was up and running, Bob left to found the Computer Science Lab at Xerox PARC. His ambition for CSL, he said, was to hire the 50 best computer scientists and engineers in the US and let them do their stuff. He didn’t get 50, but he did get some real stars — including Bob Metcalfe, Chuck Thacker, David Boggs, Butler Lampson, Alan Kay and Charles Simonyi who — in three magical years — invented much of the technology we use today: bitmapped windowing interfaces, Ethernet and the laser printer, networked workstations, collaborative working, to name just a few. They were, in the words of one chronicler “dealers of lightning”. Bob’s management style was inspired. His philosophy was to hire the best and give them their heads. His job, he told his geeks, was to protect them from The Management. And he was as good as his word.

Xerox, needless to say, fumbled the future the company could have owned. Steve Jobs saw what Bob’s team were doing and realised its significance. He went back to Apple and started the Macintosh project to bring it to the masses.

Bob and I had a friend in common — Roger Needham, the great computer scientist, who worked with Bob after he had left PARC to run the DEC Systems Research Center in California. When Roger was diagnosed with terminal cancer his Cambridge colleagues organised a symposium and a festschrift in his honour. Bob and I co-wrote one of the essays in that collection. Its title — “Zen and the Art of Research Management” — captured both Bob’s and Roger’s management style.

The NYT obit is properly respectful of Bob’s great contribution to our world. One of the comments below it comes from Alan Kay who was one of the CSL stars. He writes:

Bob fully embraced the deeply romantic “ARPA Dream” of personal computing and pervasive networking. His true genius was in being able to “lead by getting others to lead and cooperate” via total commitment, enormous confidence in his highly selected researchers expressed in all directions, impish humor, and tenacious protection of the research. He was certainly the greatest “research manager” in his field, and because of this had the largest influence in a time of the greatest funding for computing research. It is impossible to overpraise his impact and to describe just how he used his considerable personality to catalyze actions.

The key idea was to have a great vision yet not try to drive it from the funders on down, but instead “fund people not projects” by getting the best scientists in the world to “find the problems to solve” that they thought would help realize the vision. An important part of how this funding was carried out was not just to find the best scientists, but to create them. Many of the most important researchers at Xerox PARC were young researchers in ARPA funded projects. Bob was one of the creators of this process and carried it out at ARPA, Xerox PARC, and DEC. He was one of those unique people who was a central factor in a deep revolution of ideas.

Yep: unique is the word. May he rest in peace.

Image courtesy of Palo Alto Research Center

Donald Rodham Clinton

Nice Politico column by Jack Shafer:

Observers have been waiting for more than a year for Donald Trump to stop acting like a beer hall bouncer and start acting more presidential. On Wednesday, that wish came true, as Baby Donald completed his transformation into a standard chief executive of the United States by espousing many of the hallmark policies one would have associated with President Hillary Clinton.

My Politico Playbook colleagues discerned Trump’s recent policy shift in their Thursday tipsheet. Previously, Trump said NATO was obsolete. Now, he salutes it, Clinton-style, as a “great alliance.” Previously, he lavished kisses on Vladimir Putin and Russia. Now Trump and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson have taken a Clintonesque stand against Russia, admitting to low levels of trust between the two nations. Then: No war in Syria. Now, Trump is bombing Syria with the sort of glee Clinton would have brought to the mission. And on and on it goes, with Trump adopting Clintonian stances on Chinese currency manipulation (doesn’t exist!) and the Export-Import Bank (for it).

Hillary Clinton’s presidency would have been a family affair, with Bill and Chelsea mobbing the White House with their advice; Trump has seated daughter Ivanka and son-in-law Jared Kushner at on his roundtable and acts on their guidance. Hillary Clinton would have recruited pros from Goldman Sachs; Trump has brushed the rafters of his administration a beaming gold with guys from Goldman. Hillary Clinton would have gone to war with the Republican Congress, vowing to campaign against them once they refused to pass her legislation; Trump has come close to realizing that goal, telling the leader of the troublesome House Freedom Caucus, “Mark, I’m coming after you.”

Lots more in that vein. Almost enough to make one relax. Almost.

Lessons of (German) history

From Christopher Browning’s NYRB review of Volker Ullrich’s Hitler: Ascent 1889–1939:

Hitler and National Socialism should not be seen as the normal historical template for authoritarian rule, risky foreign policy, and persecution of minorities, for they constitute an extreme case of totalitarian dictatorship, limitless aggression, and genocide. They should not be lightly invoked or trivialized through facile comparison. Nonetheless, even if there are many significant differences between Hitler and Trump and their respective historical circumstances, what conclusions can the reader of Volker Ullrich’s new biography reach that offer insight into our current situation?

First, there is a high price to pay for consistently underestimating a charismatic political outsider just because one finds by one’s own standards and assumptions (in my case those of a liberal academic) his character flawed, his ideas repulsive, and his appeal incomprehensible. And that is important not only for the period of his improbable rise to power but even more so once he has attained it. Second, putting economically desperate people back to work by any means will purchase a leader considerable forgiveness for whatever other shortcomings emerge and at least passive support for any other goals he pursues. As James Carville advised the 1992 Clinton campaign, “It’s the economy, stupid.” Third, the assumption that conservative, traditionalist allies—however indispensable initially—will hold such upstart leaders in check is dangerously wishful thinking. If conservatives cannot gain power on their own without the partnership and popular support of such upstarts, their subsequent capacity to control these upstarts is dubious at best.

Fourth, the best line of defense of a democracy must be at the first point of attack. Weimar parliamentary government had been supplanted by presidentially appointed chancellors ruling through the emergency decree powers of an antidemocratic president since 1930. In 1933 Hitler simply used this post-democratic stopgap system to install a totalitarian dictatorship with incredible speed and without serious opposition. If we can still effectively protect American democracy from dictatorship, then certainly one lesson from the study of the demise of Weimar and the ascent of Hitler is how important it is to do it early.

The search for the ultimate ‘man-cave’

My eye was caught by an extraordinary piece in the FT last weekend which, in a strange way, relates to my Observer column about the Silicon Valley crowd’s obsession with dodging mortality. The FT article is about the new market in apocalypse bunkers.

The location that has become something of an unlikely media sensation is the Survival Condo Project in the usually rather less than super-prime plains north of Wichita, Kansas. Situated on a 1960s Atlas F missile launch site, the 15 condos in the first site are all sold and orders are being taken for places in the second silo. The reason there has been so much interest, from media and buyers, is the spec.

We might think of bunkers as places of desperate last resort, bleak, damp concrete cellars with industrial shelving stacked with cans of beans and musty-smelling gas masks. These, however, are something altogether different. The “Penthouse” units, comprising 3,600 sq ft of living space spread over two storeys, start from $4.5m. LED screens offer a window onto a fantasy outside world of trees and waterfalls (not the actual, frazzled and burnt-out landscape). The communal facilities include a climbing wall, dog park, pool, cinema and shooting range (of course). They also provide hydroponic and aquaponic agriculture and aquaculture, and the machinery to filter air and water indefinitely. These are bunkers for the long haul: five years or more completely off-grid.

The FT piece claims that “the latest real estate trend among internet billionaires and hedge fund tycoons is, apparently, buying bunkers”. If this is indeed true then one wonders what it means. These, after all, are people who made their fortunes from correctly guessing the short- and medium-term future. Does their appetite for these hideous, inhuman residences suggest that they have real fears for the future? Or are they so rich that blowing $4.5m on a holiday house they might never need is a bit like the rest of us buying a ticket in the lottery? The cost is relatively trivial, and you never know… you might get lucky.