Sunday 5 July, 2020

Hollyhocks

In the garden, this evening.

Click on the image to see a larger version.


Quote of the Day

You may have lost interest in the pandemic. It has not lost interest in you.

  • The Economist

Boris Johnson’s ‘new deal’ is Roosevelt lite

This morning’s Observercolumn:

It’s back to the future time again. Boris Johnson is trying to wrap himself in the cape of Franklin Roosevelt and his famous New Deal, while his consigliere, Cummings, wants to go back to the 1950s and reboot Britain by building an imitation of the Pentagon’s Advanced Research Projects Agency (Arpa – later Darpa, with the D standing for defence).

Both projects have touching aspects of romanticism, ignorance and absurdity. In relation to Johnson’s FDR tribute band, his proposed £5bn splash on infrastructure comes to about 0.2% of GDP, whereas Roosevelt’s New Deal was estimated to be worth 40% of US national income in 1929. Roosevelt built dams, housing, roads and bridges across America. He restored the banking system, set up the Securities and Exchange Commission, encouraged trade unions. From 1933, his public works administration built the Lincoln Tunnel in New York, the Grand Coulee Dam and completed the Hoover Dam. Roosevelt instituted a minimum wage and maximum hours in certain businesses and asserted the right of workers to organise. For his part, Johnson will be refurbishing schools and repairing bridges – both good in their way, but on a minuscule scale. And he doesn’t seem to have any plans for reining in the City or for encouraging workers’ rights. So his Roosevelt rhetoric is basically back-of-the-envelope hogwash.

What, then, of Cummings, back from his victory tour of the north-east?

Read on


Here’s a salutary suggestion

Watch Trump’s Inaugural Address with the benefit of hindsight. Sensitive souls may need to keep a sickbag handy. But in the light of what we now know, it’s a really instructive way of spending 16 minutes. Interestingly, the speech is well delivered; Trump’s speaking style has noticeably deteriorated since then, so the comparison is striking. My hunch is that the speech was written by Steve Bannon, who at that stage was playing the role for Trump that Dominic Cummings now plays for Boris Johnson.


A rare bird: a tech CEO with moral courage

Patrick Collison, the co-founder of the online-payments company Stripe, is one of the most interesting people in the tech world. Also, he appears to have a functioning conscience.


Covid simulations by Japanese supercomputer have bad news for open-plan offices

Simulation video available here.

The bottom line: plexiglass screens don’t guarantee your safety.


This blog is also available as a daily email. If you think this might suit you better, why not subscribe? One email a day, delivered to your inbox at 7am UK time. It’s free, and there’s a one-click unsubscribe if you decide that your inbox is full enough already!


Saturday 13 June, 2020

Saturday 13 June

Quote of the Day

Some on the left drew a strange consolation from Trump’s hostility to foreign wars, as if it meant he could be a tactical ally against American imperialism. They failed to see that he wanted to wage war at home: his furious inauguration speech with its talk of ‘American carnage’ was a declaration of war on urban racial liberalism, especially as represented by New York, the city that had rejected him.


 

The West’s ‘China problem’

I started the day reading Peter Oborne’s piece on whether China will replace Islam as the West’s new enemy — and then got sucked into the rabbit-hole of whether we are sliding into a new Cold War, with China playing the role that the Soviet Union played in the old days. This is all about geopolitics, of course, about which I know little. But if you write about digital technology, as I do, this emerging Cold War is a perennial puzzle that pops up everywhere. For example, in:

  • the discussions about whether Huawei kit should be allowed in Western 5G networks;
  • whether we should be concerned about becoming addicted to Zoom, a company with a sizeable chunk of its workforce and infrastructure based in China;
  • what to make of China’s increasing technological assertiveness at the ITU over changing the centrals protocols of the TCP/IP-based Internet we use today
  • anxieties in (mostly-US companies and the US government) about the inbuilt advantages an authoritarian regime has in fostering the development of ‘AI’ (aka machine-learning) technology, the essential feedstock for which is unlimited volumes of user data — as compared with the way our liberal reservations about privacy and civil rights hobbles our tech giants.
  • the strange and enduring legacy of old Cold War attitudes in the Western military-industrial complex which continually obsesses about Russia rather than China.

This last factor is particularly weird. In the immediate post-war period, we lived in a genuinely bi-polar world, with competition between two different economic and ideological systems — the Soviet, centrally-planned one, and the Western liberal capitalist one.

As it happens, we in the West greatly over-estimated the capacity of the Soviet system, perhaps because it seemed to be very good at some things — nuclear weapons development and space science in particular. In part we owe the Internet to the fright the US received when in 1957 the USSR launched Sputnik, the first earth-orbiting satellite. This, among other things, led to the establishment of the Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA) in the Pentagon, which was the organisation that conceived and funded Arpanet, the precursor of today’s Internet.

Nevertheless, it remained true that the bi-polar world into which I was born was based on an ongoing contest between two socio-economic systems which could be — and were often — seen as genuine alternatives.

This bi-polar world evaporated in 1989 when the Berlin Wall came down and two years later the USSR imploded, leaving the Western model apparently triumphant. This was the moment that coincided with the publication of Francis Fukuyama’s ‘End of History’ essay, which argued that the post-1917 ideological competition about the best way to organise society had been decisively resolved with liberal democracy as the winning candidate. This was an overly-simplistic reading of Fukuyama, but what was indisputable was that, post-1989, we moved into a uni-polar world, with the US as the reigning hyper power, able to do exactly as it pleased. Which it did, including launching a disastrous war in Iraq on a pretext, and further destabilising the Middle East as a consequence.

But even before 1989, things were beginning to change elsewhere in the world. In 1978, in particular, as Laurie Macfarlane points out,

Deng Xiaoping became China’s new paramount leader, after outmanoeuvring Mao’s chosen successor, Hua Guofeng. Deng oversaw the country’s historic ‘Reform and Opening-up’ process, which increased the role of market incentives and opened up the Chinese economy to global trade. In the decades since, China’s economic transformation has been nothing short of astonishing.

In 1981, 88% of the Chinese population lived in extreme poverty. In the four decades since, nearly a billion people have been lifted out of poverty, leaving the figure at less than 2%. Over the same time period, the size of China’s economy increased from $195 billion – around the same size as the Spanish economy – to nearly $14 trillion today. By some measures, China’s economy has overtaken the US and is now the largest in the world. China is also home to the second largest number of Fortune 500 companies in the world, and more billionaires than Europe.

So even as the old bi-polar world was dying, a new alternative system was being born. I don’t think that Deng had many geopolitical ambitions, but his successors certainly had. And have.

China’s astonishing economic transformation has been engineered by a distinctive economic model which they call “socialism with Chinese characteristics”, combining strategic state ownership and planning with market-oriented incentives and a one-party political system to create a unique economic model that while poorly understood in the West is found interesting and perhaps attractive by a significant number of non-aligned countries.

It doesn’t look much like ’socialism’ to anyone who studies the tech sector, because the private sector accounts for the overwhelming majority of output, employment and investment in China; and there is — as Macfarlane points out, little sign of democratic workers’ control. But it’s a powerful and effective system, and — to date — it appears to be working. Which is more than could ever be said for the Soviet system.

So here we are in a bi-polar world again. But it’s nothing like its predecessor. In the old Cold War, for example, European democracies were resolutely anti-Soviet (even if they didn’t always pay their mandatory 2% of GDP into the NATO budget). But now, with China as the opposite ‘pole’ to the US, they’re much more ambivalent. As are many global companies. China’s role as the workshop of the world, and also as the fastest growing and potentially most profitable market, means that outright hostility to the new superpower looks like a self-defeating policy.

This doesn’t bother Trump, whose most desperate need is to find an enemy he can blame for the unfolding disaster of the pandemic that has occurred on his watch. And it isn’t just Trump, as Peter Oborne says:

China is being presented as the new existential enemy, just as Islam was 20 years ago. And by the very same people. The same newspaper columnists, the same think tanks, the same political parties and the same intelligence agencies.

After Huntington’s famous essay that led the charge against Muslims – or what they often call radical Islam – now they have turned their attention to the Far East.

US President Donald Trump, the world’s Muslim-basher-in-chief, has now started to attack China, rather as Bush, his Republican predecessor, attacked Iraq in 2003 and the “axis of evil” 20 years ago. During his campaign in 2016 he accused China of “raping” the US economy.

However, since the outbreak of Covid-19, Trump’s attacks have gained speed and traction. He has accused China of covering up the virus and lying about its death toll.

Leaving aside Trump, who thinks only in transactional terms and doesn’t seem to have any strategic sense, the impression one gets from the US foreign policy establishment is of hegemonic unease. The feeling that it would be disastrous if the US lost its position as the global leader in digital technology is palpable. And it’s ruthlessly exploited by the tech companies — as we saw when the Facebook boss ‘testified’ to Congress and hinted that not hampering (i.e. regulating) the tech giants is a way of ensuring the continuance of US technological hegemony.

So is American hegemony really in doubt? Writing in 2018, Adam Tooze was sceptical:

As of today, two years into the Trump presidency, it is a gross exaggeration to talk of an end to the American world order. The two pillars of its global power – military and financial – are still firmly in place. What has ended is any claim on the part of American democracy to provide a political model. This is certainly a historic break. Trump closes the chapter begun by Woodrow Wilson in the First World War, with his claim that American democracy articulated the deepest feelings of liberal humanity. A hundred years later, Trump has for ever personified the sleaziness, cynicism and sheer stupidity that dominates much of American political life. What we are facing is a radical disjunction between the continuity of basic structures of power and their political legitimation.

If America’s president mounted on a golf buggy is a suitably ludicrous emblem of our current moment, the danger is that it suggests far too pastoral a scenario: American power trundling to retirement across manicured lawns. That is not our reality. Imagine instead the president and his buggy careening around the five-acre flight deck of a $13 billion, Ford-class, nuclear-powered aircraft carrier engaged in ‘dynamic force deployment’ to the South China Sea. That better captures the surreal revival of great-power politics that hangs over the present. Whether this turns out to be a violent and futile rearguard action, or a new chapter in the age of American world power, remains to be seen.

And if you felt that this post was TL;DR. (Too long, don’t read) I perfectly understand. E.M. Forster once observed that there are two kinds of writer: those who know what they think and write it; and those who find out what they think by trying to write it. I belong mostly in the latter category.


Quarantine diary — Day 84

Link


This blog is also available as a daily email. If you think this might suit you better, why not subscribe? One email a day, delivered to your inbox at 7am UK time. It’s free, and there’s a one-click unsubscribe if your decide that your inbox is full enough already!


Sunday 24 May, 2020

Get your t-shirt now!

From some genius on Twitter.


Quote of the Day

Social media has given new meaning to “the last post”. Many victims of Covid-19 live on through their final public words, the the Detroit bus driver Jason Hargrove, who died 11 days after recording a Facebook video scolding a woman for coughing on his bus without covering her mouth.”

  • Simon Kuper, Financial Times, May 23/24, 2020.

How the ‘Plandemic’ conspiracy theory took hold

This morning’s Observer column:

To have one viral sensation, Oscar Wilde might have said, is unfortunate. But to have two smacks of carelessness. And that’s what we have. The first is Covid-19, about which much printer’s ink has already been spilled. The second is Plandemic, a 26-minute “documentary” video featuring Dr Judy Mikovits, a former research scientist and inveterate conspiracy theorist who blames the coronavirus outbreak on big pharma, Bill Gates and the World Health Organization. She also claims that the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (which is headed by Dr Anthony Fauci) buried her research showing vaccines weaken people’s immune systems and made them more vulnerable to Covid-19. Just to round off the accusations, Mikovits claims that wearing masks is dangerous because it “literally activates your own virus”. And, if proof were needed that the pharma-Gates-scientific-elite cabal were out to get her, the leading journal Science in 2011 retracted a paper by her on a supposed link between a retrovirus and chronic fatigue syndrome that it had accepted in 2009.

The video went online on 4 May when its maker, Mikki Willis, a hitherto little-known film producer, posted it to Facebook, YouTube, Vimeo and a separate website set up to share the video…

Read on


A song for Dominic Cummings

This is so clever and witty. As accomplished in its way as anything Noel Coward ever wrote.

Link


Dr Doom explains

Nouriel Roubini is not everybody’s cup of tea, but he saw the 2008 banking crisis coming and he doesn’t see many good outcomes for the aftermath of Covid-19.

New York magazine has an interesting interview with him. Here’s the bit that really interested me:

Q: Some Trumpian nationalists and labor-aligned progressives might see an upside in your prediction that America is going to bring manufacturing back “onshore.” But you insist that ordinary Americans will suffer from the downsides of reshoring (higher consumer prices) without enjoying the ostensible benefits (more job opportunities and higher wages). In your telling, onshoring won’t actually bring back jobs, only accelerate automation. And then, again with automation, you insist that Americans will suffer from the downside (unemployment, lower wages from competition with robots) but enjoy none of the upside from the productivity gains that robotization will ostensibly produce. So, what do you say to someone who looks at your forecast and decides that you are indeed “Dr. Doom” — not a realist, as you claim to be, but a pessimist, who ignores the bright side of every subject?

Roubini: When you reshore, you are moving production from regions of the world like China, and other parts of Asia, that have low labor costs, to parts of the world like the U.S. and Europe that have higher labor costs. That is a fact. How is the corporate sector going respond to that? It’s going to respond by replacing labor with robots, automation, and AI.

I was recently in South Korea. I met the head of Hyundai, the third-largest automaker in the world. He told me that tomorrow, they could convert their factories to run with all robots and no workers. Why don’t they do it? Because they have unions that are powerful. In Korea, you cannot fire these workers, they have lifetime employment.

But suppose you take production from a labor-intensive factory in China — in any industry — and move it into a brand-new factory in the United States. You don’t have any legacy workers, any entrenched union. You are States. You don’t have any legacy workers, any entrenched union. You are going to design that factory to use as few workers as you can. Any new factory in the U.S. is going to be capital-intensive and labor-saving. It’s been happening for the last ten years and it’s going to happen more when we reshore. So reshoring means increasing production in the United States but not increasing employment. Yes, there will be productivity increases. And the profits of those firms that relocate production may be slightly higher than they were in China (though that isn’t certain since automation requires a lot of expensive capital investment).

But you’re not going to get many jobs. The factory of the future is going to be one person manning 1,000 robots and a second person cleaning the floor. And eventually the guy cleaning the floor is going to be replaced by a Roomba because a Roomba doesn’t ask for benefits or bathroom breaks or get sick and can work 24-7.

The fundamental problem today is that people think there is a correlation between what’s good for Wall Street and what’s good for Main Street. That wasn’t even true during the global financial crisis when we were saying, “We’ve got to bail out Wall Street because if we don’t, Main Street is going to collapse.” How did Wall Street react to the crisis? They fired workers. And when they rehired them, they were all gig workers, contractors, freelancers, and so on. That’s what happened last time. This time is going to be more of the same. Thirty-five to 40 million people have already been fired. When they start slowly rehiring some of them (not all of them), those workers are going to get part-time jobs, without benefits, without high wages. That’s the only way for the corporates to survive. Because they’re so highly leveraged today, they’re going to need to cut costs, and the first cost you cut is labor. But of course, your labor cost is my consumption. So in an equilibrium where everyone’s slashing labor costs, households are going to have less income. And they’re going to save more to protect themselves from another coronavirus crisis. And so consumption is going to be weak. That’s why you get the U-shaped recovery.

There’s a conflict between workers and capital. For a decade, workers have been screwed. Now, they’re going to be screwed more. There’s a conflict between small business and large business.


And I thought I was enraged by the current UK government…

Well, AL Kennedy is even more infuriated — see her piece in today’s Observer For example:

For a few weeks I had red eyes, a strangled cough, an invisible shovel repeatedly hitting my head and something I visualised as a tiny rabbit kicking about in my chest. But I’m not dead, thanks to austerity and all those thought experiments, that’s now a wonderful luxury, an unlooked-for plus in British life. I locked myself away, just to be sure I didn’t share the plague (sorry, Dom) and I’m OK now. I function. Or maybe I was never ill, because any prolonged reflection upon our national circumstances produces identical symptoms. I suffer from fury. I beg your pardon, The Fury. Or, indeed, THE FURY.

I mean, it’s not just anger any more, is it? It’s not any kind of emotion on a familiar human scale, not after all this. Not after the tens of thousands of avoidable deaths. Not after the nurses, teachers, doctors, bus drivers, carers, checkout staff, warehouse staff – the whole army of the useful now declared expendable. Not after people who know their jobs may kill them, may send them home infected, but they go to work anyway to keep everything running, to save us, and still they don’t get adequate pay, or equipment, or even respect. Not after our leaders always have time for racism and PR, but never for even the level of planning you’d put into a sandwich. Not after millions of us have lain awake, just hoping the people we love won’t die. Not after the drowning on dry land alone, after the mourning. Not after the Brexit cult’s insistence that no-deal Brexit must still be imposed, so hop into the wood-chipper, everyone still standing. Not after Stay Alert.

We’re quiet now – we’re trying to save each other, staying home, not forming crowds, thinking, planning. But un-isolated life will eventually recommence. We’ll remember our wounds. We’ll remember who helped and who harmed. And, pardon my language, but our government is fucking terrified of what happens then.

Yep.


That Larry Summers interview

Terrific interview with the former US Treasury Secretary and Harvard President. Long read, but mostly worth it.

Some highlights

On US-China relations…

we need to craft a relationship with China from the principles of mutual respect and strategic reassurance, with rather less of the feigned affection that there has been in the past. We are not partners. We are not really friends. We are entities that find ourselves on the same small lifeboat in turbulent waters a long way from shore. We need to be pulling in unison if things are to work for either of us. If we can respect each other’s roles, respect our very substantial differences, confine our spheres of negotiation to those areas that are most important for cooperation, and represent the most fundamental interests of our societies, we can have a more successful co-evolution that we have had in recent years.

On globalisation…

We have done too much management of globalization for the benefit of those in Davos, and too little for the benefit of those in Detroit or Dusseldorf. Over the last two decades, better intellectual property protection for Mickey Mouse and Hollywood movies has been an A level economic issue. Better global tax cooperation, so that tech companies’ profits do not locate themselves in cyberspace and entirely escape taxation, has been a B-level issue. Achieving better market access for derivatives dealers has been an A-level global economic issue, while assuring that bank secrecy does not permit large-scale money laundering has been a B-level economic cooperation issue. The protection of foreign investors’ property rights has been an A-level issue, and the maintenance of worker standards, or the avoidance of unfair competition through exchange rate depreciation, has been a B-level issue. And ultimately, that has all estranged the elite from those they aspire to lead.

Someone put it to me this way: First, we said that you are going to lose your job, but it was okay because when you got your new one, you were going to have higher wages thanks to lower prices because of international trade. Then we said that your company was going to move your job overseas, but it was really necessary because if we didn’t do that, then your company was going to be less competitive. Now we’re saying that we have to cut the taxes on those companies and cut the calculus class from your kid’s high school, because otherwise we won’t be able to attract companies to the United States, and you have to pay higher taxes and live with fewer services. At a certain point, people say, “This whole global thing doesn’t work for me,” and they have a point.

On regulation…

So the case for regulation is not to be anti-business. Regulation needs to be supported because it enables the vast majority of businesses who want to do right by society to do so and still be able to compete. That’s how the case for regulation needs to be framed. We should not be waging jihad against business. We should be waging jihad against those who put profit ahead of every other value in the society.We should not be waging jihad against business. We should be waging jihad against those who put profit ahead of every other value in the society. And that’s where in the emphasis on profit, we have gone a bit awry.

On tax and taxation policy…

The single easiest answer is that we could raise well over a trillion dollars over the next decade by simply enforcing the tax law that we have against people with high incomes. Natasha Sarin and I made this case and generated a revenue estimate some time ago. If we just restored the IRS to its previous size, judged relatively to the economy; if we moved past the massive injustice represented by the fact that you’re more likely to get audited if you receive the earned income tax credit (EITC) than if you earn $300,000 a year or more; if we made plausible use of information technology and the IRS got to where the credit card companies were 20 years ago, in terms of information technology-matching; and if we required of those who make shelter investments the kind of regular reporting that we require of cleaning women, we would raise, by my estimate, over a trillion dollars. Former IRS Commissioner Charles Rossotti, who knows more about it than I do, thinks the figure is closer to $2 trillion. That’s where we should start.

Over time I think we are going to need a larger public sector in the United States to deal with the challenges of a more complex world: an aging society, more inequality that requires mitigation, and a huge change in the relative price of the things the public sector buys, like healthcare and education. We’re going to need more revenue, beyond the unsustainable borrowing that we’re engaged in now. But the first way to get it is enforcing the law we have, which will raise substantial revenue progressively and in ways that will actually promote economic efficiency.

On raising the minimum wage and Universal Basic Income (UBI)…

I do support raising the minimum wage. It’s a matter of balance. I don’t think the minimum wage was doing any significant damage in terms of causing unemployment when Ronald Reagan was president, and the federal minimum wage is now substantially lower, after adjusting for inflation, than it was at that time. I believe raising the minimum wage would help a lot of people who are in substantial need.

I’m not enthusiastic about a universal basic income because the fact that it is so poorly targeted, precisely because of its universality, mean that it will either be prohibitively expensively or will not provide adequate benefits to the poor. Imagine a universal basic income could pay $10,000 per person—that would require nearly a doubling in the federal budget, or more than a doubling in federal tax collection, in order to finance it. That doesn’t seem to me to be remotely tenable. If you make it inexpensive, then you’re not going to be doing very much to help poor people.

On where he disagrees with Keynes’s 1930 essay on “Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren”…

There’s a lot of empirical evidence since Keynes wrote, and for every non-employed middle-aged man who’s learning to play the harp or to appreciate the Impressionists, there are a hundred who are drinking beer, playing video games, and watching 10 hours of TV a day.

Great stuff. The only thing the US now needs is a President who isn’t a toddler.


Quarantine diary — Day 64

Link

Errata The author of Universal Man: the seven lives of John Maynard Keynes mentioned in yesterday’s Diary is Richard (not Rupert) Davenport-Hines. Many thanks to Gordon Johnson for alerting me to the error.


This blog is also available as a daily email. If you think this might suit you better, why not subscribe? One email a day, delivered to your inbox at 7am UK time. It’s free, and there’s a one-click unsubscribe if your decide that your inbox is full enough already!


Tuesday 28 April, 2020

Lunchtime in Wuhan

In the cafeteria of the factory that makes Lenovo products — including those lovely Thinkpad laptops.

Source: a post on Reddit


Why we need a new “Office for Black Swans”

Very thoughtful blog post by Steve Unger, who used to be a senior official at OFCOM and is now an associate at the Bennett Institute for Public Policy. The first part of the post is about how Britain’s Internet infrastructure has stood up to the strain of lockdown-generated traffic increases. But then he turns to the bigger question: why are democracies so bad at planning for remote but potentially disastrous contingencies? The UK government is providing us with a sobering case-study of this tendency.

There is a more fundamental question beyond communications about how we set priorities for policy in the absence of a crisis. In good times there is a tendency to focus on positive initiatives that will result in positive news stories. This is not meant as a criticism; indeed, the tendency to take an optimistic view of the future is generally a good thing.

But it does create a risk that work to prepare for bad times is crowded out. This capability does exist within government, but it does not always receive the visibility it merits, or the senior sponsorship necessary to drive sustained action across different parts of the public and private sectors. My own experience is that it is prioritised in the immediate aftermath of a crisis, but that other priorities emerge as memories fade.

Of course, a key characteristic of ‘black swan’ events such as the current crisis is that they tend to be obvious – with hindsight. However, that does not mean it is impossible to make any preparation for them: COVID-19 is novel, but infectious diseases are not.

I remember a government minister commenting, after several years of serious floods, that although any specific flood might be a once in a lifetime event, somewhere in the country will be flooded every year. That new-found appreciation of the nature of statistics led to greater priority being given to flood preparations. We should apply that same principle more generally.

There is a strong case for creating a new public body to give these issues the sustained attention they require. Its task would be to assess the risk associated with different categories of those low-likelihood high-impact events which may not be addressed by conventional business continuity plans. It would publish recommendations as to an appropriate response. The recommendation may be to do nothing, on the basis that advance preparation is either impractical or too costly – which would at least be the result of a conscious decision. Where some form of action is agreed, it would track delivery.

Another quango? Yes, that is exactly what the response to this crisis should include.

Yep. But how do we ensure that future governments pay attention to what this body warns us about? After all, it’s abundantly clear that the present government had a graphic warning about pandemic risk last year — and did nothing — probably because at the time it was obsessed with Brexit.


David Runciman on Hobbes and power

David Runciman has embarked on a series of podcasted talks on the history of ideas. The first talk, on Thomas Hobbes and his Leviathan, is a masterly, contextual introduction to the man and his book. I wish I’d heard it before, many years ago, I first embarked on Leviathan, which I found pretty hard going on the first pass. Listening to the talk brought home to me the perennial relevance of Hobbes’s thinking.

This continuing relevance is a theme that David flagged last month in an essay he wrote for the Guardian about the questions that have always preoccupied political theorists.

But now they are not so theoretical. As the current crisis shows, the primary fact that underpins political existence is that some people get to tell others what to do. At the heart of all modern politics is a trade-off between personal liberty and collective choice. This is the Faustian bargain identified by the philosopher Thomas Hobbes in the middle of the 17th century, when the country was being torn apart by a real civil war.

As Hobbes knew, to exercise political rule is to have the power of life and death over citizens. The only reason we would possibly give anyone that power is because we believe it is the price we pay for our collective safety. But it also means that we are entrusting life-and-death decisions to people we cannot ultimately control.

The primary risk is that those on the receiving end refuse to do what they are told. At that point, there are only two choices. Either people are forced to obey, using the coercive powers the state has at its disposal. Or politics breaks down altogether, which Hobbes argued was the outcome we should fear most of all.

It’s this last risk that keeps coming to mind when thinking about worst-scenarios if the virus overwhelms the ability of US authorities to manage it. Just think of how many unlicensed guns there are in that benighted country :-(


Terrific interview with Bill Gates on the Coronavirus crisis

Ezra Klein has interviewed Gates before, but this new interview is just great. It’s an hour long, But it’s accompanied by a transcript if you want to speed through it. Unmissable IMHO,


Van Gogh in 4K

Here’s something for a lockdown afternoon — a 4K video tour of the wonderful Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam. It’s a vivid reminder of what a wonderful artist he was. When I lived in Holland it was my second-favourite museum (first was the nearby Stedelijk — which is now doing live online tours). But this set of videos brings back wistful memories of the Van Gogh museum — coupled with a resolution to go there in person whenever it becomes possible again.


The UK gets ready to launch its contact-tracing app

BBC report here. But the app uses a centralised database — which means that the matching process that works out which phones to send alerts to — happens on an NHS-controlled server. There’s also a claim is that the app doesn’t have the deleterious impact on iPhone battery life that comes from having Bluetooth running constantly (compared with Apple-API-compatible apps, which doesn’t require that). It’s not clear how the NHSx designers are confident about this.

But the most important thing is the NHSx app’s reliance on a centralised server, which has security and surveillance risks. What it means, really, is that the UK is taking the route explicitly rejected by the German authorities yesterday.

The BBC report has a good illustration of the difference between the two approaches.


Quarantine diary — Day 38

Link


This blog is now also available as a once-a-day email. If you think this might work better for you why not subscribe here? (It’s free and there’s a 1-click unsubscribe if you subsequently decide you need to prune your inbox!) One email a day, in your inbox at 07:00 every morning.


Back to the future

The FTC is suing Qualcomm, the chip maker, in the first major monopoly case since the Microsoft one all those years ago. In his weekly newsletter, Matt Stoller provides a useful historical comparison to put the case in its context:

Qualcomm is a very important corporation, but one you may not have heard of because it doesn’t do consumer oriented work. The company makes critical components for cell phones, the stuff you don’t see but that goes into the guts of telecom systems. Its technology connects phones to cell networks, and it makes its money by selling chips and by licensing its patents to device makers.

The story of how Qualcomm monopolizes is pretty simple. The corporation does what Bill Gates did to computer manufacturers and what John D. Rockefeller did to railroads, as I wrote a few weeks ago. Rockefeller’s oil was critical to railroads, and Gates’s operating system software was critical to computer makers. Both of them thus forced their dependents to give them a fee not just for every Rockefeller barrel of oil or Microsoft OS license, but a fee for every one of their competitors’ as well. They taxed their competition and made it impossible to compete.

Qualcomm does this as well. As its competitor Intel explained, Qualcomm “refuses to sell [phone makers] any chipsets unless those manufacturers also purchase separate patent licenses that require them to pay exorbitant royalties for every handset they sell, regardless of whether the handset contains a Qualcomm chipset.” In other words, it’s the Gates/Rockefeller playbook. Find an essential chokehold, and use it to control the industry.

Qualcomm uses a few other anti-competitive tactics. It refused to license its patents – essentially standard and necessary for the industry – to competitors. And it cut exclusive deal arrangements with customers to box anyone else out of the market. (You can read the rest of Intel’s amicus brief if you want to hear expensive lawyers accurately whine about being treated unfairly.)

The strange thing is, though, that important sectors of the US government are trying to intervene in the case, effectively opposing the FTC. Their argument is that the suit undermines national security.

The DOJ argument is basically saying, yeah, Qualcomm does all that stuff, but Judge Gorsuch said it’s all legal and efficient, and we don’t want to dissuade the liberty to abuse patents and market power. Two other officials, one at the Department of Defense and another at the Department of Energy, also weighed in. Ellen Lord, a former defense contractor and the Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition and Sustainment for the DOD, argued that Qualcomm’s position as a monopolist enables it to support national security and help China. A Department of Energy official Max Everett basically said the same thing.

The national security argument is BS, says Stoller, but not for the reason you’d think. He quotes an excerpt from a WSJ OpEd by Michael Chertoff, a former senior Cabinet officer in previous US administrations.

In the technology race against China, the U.S. should prefer to let competition drive innovation rather than support exclusive national champions. Apart from the economic inefficiency, a single-source national champion creates an unacceptable risk to American security—artificially concentrating vulnerability in a single point. The government’s argument in support of Qualcomm isn’t prudent, and if courts accept it, the result would be a self-inflicted wound to U.S. national interests. We need competition and multiple providers, not a potentially vulnerable technological monoculture.

Underpinning this argument is a prevailing denialism about China in the American Deep State. What happens, Stoller says, is that China either hacks US corporations to steal their intellectual property, or acquires it legally when they try to do business in China. So: China innovates at speed by topping up its own (substantial) native ingenuity with the ideas and wisdom of its US competitors, while those same competitors are locked out by monopolisation and patent restrictions from exploiting that same, locally-developed intellectual property in their own country.

End result: China races ahead. Madness on stilts.

Networked totalitarianism: the script

The New York Times’s scoop on the treatment of China’s Uyghur population is an eye-opener, even to those of us who suspected the worst.

The students booked their tickets home at the end of the semester, hoping for a relaxing break after exams and a summer of happy reunions with family in China’s far west.

Instead, they would soon be told that their parents were gone, relatives had vanished and neighbors were missing — all of them locked up in an expanding network of detention camps built to hold Muslim ethnic minorities.

The authorities in the Xinjiang region worried the situation was a powder keg. And so they prepared.

The leadership distributed a classified directive advising local officials to corner returning students as soon as they arrived and keep them quiet. It included a chillingly bureaucratic guide for how to handle their anguished questions, beginning with the most obvious: Where is my family?

Samples:

”They’re in a training school set up by the government”. If pressed, officials were to explain that the parents were not criminals, but were nevertheless not free to leave the “schools”.

The question-and-answer script also included a barely-concealed threat: students were to be told that their behaviour could either shorten or extend the detention of their relatives. “I am sure that you will support them, because this is for their own good”, officials were advised to say, “and also for your own good”.

Lots more in that vein.

So why are Western countries still treating China as a proper member of the international community? (The answer is that one has to play nice with a superpower, I guess.) And what will it take to change things? Answer: probably only a brutal Tienanmen-style suppression of the protests in Hong Kong would have that effect.

On the other hand, it’s not that long ago that the UK had a system of interning people without trial in Northern Ireland. But at least it had the excuse of a genuine emergency. As far as one can see, the Uighurs don’t pose any threat to the Chinese state.

Global risks 2035 update

From the Atlantic Council. Headlines are:

  • The unipolar world of the 1990s, when the United States was the world’s sole superpower, is definitively over and will no longer be a realistic option for any president.
  • An absolute United States’ decline is not inevitable, but an open conflict with China increases those risks considerably.
  • A deep economic reversal in China could trigger a widespread economic meltdown that leads to a worst-case scenario of slower growth and a return to protectionism and political destabilization.

No real surprises, really.

Full report (pdf) here

India is suddenly wary about sharing research with China

Well, well. This from Times Higher Ed Supplement:

Despite rolling out the red carpet for Chinese President Xi Jinping last week, India seems to be pulling away from China when it comes to science and research. Indian universities have been informed that all academic cooperation with China must be approved by the Ministry of Home Affairs and the Ministry of External Affairs, “in addition to other clearances”. Analysts speculate that the growing distance between the countries’ scientific achievements and economic power has made India more tentative about sharing its talent.

Not sure I’d like a government department to be deciding what kind of research I can do and with whom, but this is an interesting straw in the wind.

Surprise, surprise! Little Red App does covert snooping

From the Washington Post:

BEIJING — The Chinese Communist Party appears to have “superuser” access to the entire data on more than 100 million Android-based cellphones through a back door in a propaganda app that the government has been promoting aggressively this year.

An examination of the coding of the app used by phones running the Android operating system shows it enables authorities to retrieve messages and photos from users’ phones, browse their contacts and Internet history, and activate an audio recorder inside the devices.

“The [Chinese Communist Party] essentially has access to over 100 million users’ data,” said Sarah Aoun, director of technology at the Open Technology Fund, an initiative funded by the U.S. government under Radio Free Asia. “That’s coming from the top of a government that is expanding its surveillance into citizens’ day-to-day lives.”

Apple said that, while the app could be downloaded on its devices, this type of “superuser” surveillance could not be conducted on Apple’s operating system.

Apple’s China problem

From ReCode:

Plenty of US companies work in and with countries that require them to make moral compromises. Facebook, for instance, finds itself frequently pulling down videos and posts because they upset Turkey’s censors; Netflix took down an episode of comedian Hasan Minhaj’s Patriot Act in Saudi Arabia because it was critical of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. The standard argument these companies all make is that those countries are better off when they have access to their products.

This is Apple’s argument, too. “We believe our presence in China helps promote greater openness and facilitates the free flow of ideas and information,” Cook told Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) and Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT) in a December 2017 letter. “We are convinced that Apple can best promote fundamental rights, including the right of free expression, by being engaged even where we may disagree with a particular country’s law.”

Left unsaid in Cook’s letter is that Apple has to do business in China.

Unlike tech companies that haven’t broken into the country or only do minor business in it, Apple is now so deep in China that leaving it could be catastrophic. Even if the company was willing to forgo the $44 billion a year in sales it makes in China, it can’t leave the deep network of suppliers and assemblers that build hundreds of millions of iPhones every year.