Sunday 28 June, 2020

Quote of the Day

In 1990, the top three carmakers in Detroit had a market capitalization of $36 billion and 1.2 million employees. In 2014, the top three firms in Silicon Valley, with a market capitalization of over $1 trillion, had only 137,000 employees.


A family outing

A scene from our walk yesterday evening. Think of it as my homage to John Constable! The Canada geese goslings have grown at an extraordinary rate. And it was very considerate of them and their parents to swim in such a straight line.

Click on the image to see a larger version.


Is it payback time for Apple as the EU goes after its licences to print money?

This morning’s Observer column:

On 16 June, the European commission opened two antitrust investigations into Apple’s App Store and Apple Pay practices. The first investigation will examine whether Apple has broken EU competition rules with its App Store policies. The second investigation is into whether restrictions imposed by Apple on the near field communication (NFC) capability of its iPhone and Apple Watch mean that banks and other financial institutions are prevented from offering NFC payment systems using Apple kit.

Let’s take the App Store first. When Apple unveiled the iPhone in 2007, it created an amazing new opportunity for software developers and, of course, for Apple itself. Because the new phone was basically a powerful handheld computer, that meant it could run smallish programs, which came to be called apps. And because it had an internet connection those programs could be efficiently distributed across the net. From this came the idea that Apple should set up an App Store to which developers could upload their programs. Apple, being a control-freak corporation, would vet those apps before they appeared on the store and would levy a 30% commission on sales. It seems like a great idea…

Read on


Thinking of moving to the US? Listen to this first

Stunning The Daily podcast on what’s been going on in Texas.

Made me realise I didn’t know the half of it.


Anne Case and Angus Deaton interviewed by Der Spiegel

Link. Interesting throughout. For example:

DER SPIEGEL: What has caused this mass-despair in white, middle-class life?

Deaton: Look at the labor market, at wages. Life-time jobs and the meaning that comes from a life like that is very important. Roles for men and women are defined by it, as is their place in the community. It’s almost like Marx: Social conditions depend on the means of production. And these means of production are being brought down by globalization, by automation, by the incredible force of health care. And that’s destroying communities.

DER SPIEGEL: Yet where there are losers, there should be winners as well. Who is to blame for this development?

Deaton: Many people have said that there are two ways of getting rich: One way is by making things, and the other is by taking things. And one of the ways of taking things is to make the government give you special favors. Those special favors don’t create anything, but they can make you rich, at the expense of everybody else.

Case: For instance, the pharma companies get a law passed that Medicare has to pay for drugs at whatever price the pharma companies choose. Or the doctors’ lobby doesn’t allow as many people to go to medical school, which helps to keep doctors salaries up. That’s one of the reasons why doctors are the largest single occupation in the top 1 percent.

DER SPIEGEL: Would you argue that those in the top 1 percent are peculiarly prone to rent seeking?

Deaton: No, but many people are in the 1 percent because of rent seeking. This mechanism is creating a lot of very wealthy people who would not be wealthy if the government hadn’t given them a license to rip off the rest. We’re not among the people who think of inequality as a causal force. It’s rent-seeking opportunities that create inequality.

DER SPIEGEL: How do the losers of this development react politically?

Deaton: Well, many of them like Donald Trump (laughs)!

I’ve just got their book.


If you thought that the Pizzagate conspiracy theory was dead and buried (I did), then think again.

Astonishing — and depressing — NYT story.

Sigh.


Quarantine diary — Day 99

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Saturday 27 June, 2020

Quote of the Day

Other countries are used to loathing America, admiring America, and fearing America (sometimes all at once). But pitying America? That one is new.


The dead tree

On one of our cycle routes. Dead trees make for very dramatic photographs, sometimes. I’m always tempted to stop and photograph them.


Can this really be right?

From today’s Guardian:

The UK government’s plan to invest hundreds of millions of pounds in a satellite broadband company has been described as “nonsensical” by experts, who say the company doesn’t even make the right type of satellite the country needs after Brexit.

The investment in OneWeb, first reported on Thursday night, is intended to mitigate against the UK losing access to the EU’s Galileo satellite navigation system.

But OneWeb – in which the UK will own a 20% stake following the investment – currently operates a completely different type of satellite network from that typically used to run such navigation systems.

“The fundamental starting point is, yes, we’ve bought the wrong satellites,” said Dr Bleddyn Bowen, a space policy expert at the University of Leicester. “OneWeb is working on basically the same idea as Elon Musk’s Starlink: a mega-constellation of satellites in low Earth orbit, which are used to connect people on the ground to the internet.

“What’s happened is that the very talented lobbyists at OneWeb have convinced the government that we can completely redesign some of the satellites to piggyback a navigation payload on it. It’s bolting an unproven technology on to a mega-constellation that’s designed to do something else. It’s a tech and business gamble.”

If true, it looks like Trump-level imbecility.


Simon Kuper on why football matters

Lovely essay:

I’m British but I grew up mostly abroad, so when I went to university in England I discovered a new species of man: the Total Fan, the teenager whose main identity was the football club he supported. I witnessed conversations in the common room that went like this:

Student in plastic Manchester United shirt: “We’re brilliant this season.”

Student in Spurs shirt: “No, you’re shit.”

Student in Crystal Palace shirt: “He’s right, Steve. You’re shit.”

They weren’t exactly casting aspersions on Steve’s personality. They were talking about his football club. However, they saw the two things as essentially the same. Steve was Manchester United. The Spurs fan once told me that, when his team won the FA Cup, he walked into the common room to receive everybody’s congratulations as if he personally had lifted the trophy.

Even if you’re not a football fan (and I’m not) this is worth reading.


Share the wealth as we recover health (hopefully)

Noema magazine (a new publication from the Berggruen Institute) has an interesting conversation with Joe Stieglitz and Ray Dalio about how to ensure that the benefits of any recovery from the Covid crisis are shared with the population as a whole.

The basic idea: the massive taxpayer-financed cash infusion to save some of the largest companies that are otherwise viable may present a unique opportunity to more effectively tackle inequality by bolstering the assets of the less well-off. If the same taxpayers who are bearing the costs of the bailout also share an upside when we recover prosperity, wealth will be shared more fairly.

“This can be done”, says the magazine,

by establishing a sovereign wealth fund, or national endowment, that pools the taxpayer’s ownership shares from all the bailed-out companies and distributes regular dividends to all citizens. We call this “universal basic capital,” as distinct from the idea of a universal basic income. Instead of only once again relying on redistributing income to close the gap after wealth has been created, that wealth should be shared upfront in what we call “pre-distribution.”

There are many models out there that guide us on this path. Alaska has long had a social wealth fund that pays dividends to citizens from the revenues of the state’s oil leases. Norway has a similar fund, also from oil revenues, that pays into the general pension system. Australia has what is calls the superannuation fund, in essence a sovereign wealth fund financed by employees, employers and state contributions for its universal pension scheme. The wealth of that fund now stands at almost $2 trillion, a sum greater than Australia’s GDP. Singapore has a similar plan, called the Central Provident Fund, from which citizens can also draw for health and housing needs. It is so profitable from its global investments that it is even able to fund some government services and help keep taxes low.

What is important at this point is to recognize the opportunity for reducing social inequality that can be created by a fair and innovative approach to economic recovery. If everyone in this pandemic must share the downside, all must share in the upside as well.

Some promising ideas here. And the good thing is that none of the corporations in which governments might take a stake in return for support during the pandemic are tech companies, for the simple reason that those companies are the ones that will have benefited most from the crisis.

Noema‘s good, btw.


We can make you hurt if you don’t do what we want

Jonathan Zittrain is my idea of a perfect academic. Staggeringly bright, knows both digital tech and the law intimately (he has Chairs in both Harvard Law and Engineering), fizzes with original and often productive ways of viewing tricky problems, etc. So whenever he writes or lectures about anything I pay attention.

Now he has an article in The Atlantic about what social media outfits should do about Trump. At the beginning, his discussion of the possible options for regulating the speech of an authoritarian nutter takes a fairly standard detached, scholarly tone. His emerging conclusion seems to be that every plausible configuration of social media in 2020 is unpalatable.

But then, he briefly switches to a different register:

Those proposals can be analyzed and judged on their own terms as if they simply appeared on Congress’s docket out of nowhere, and I’d normally offer here some thoughts on their details. But I can’t stay in my academic lane. The executive order, and the push for more legislation, is part of a larger pattern in which the president appears to seek vengeance against those who even mildly criticize him, retaliating in any way he can, including by using the powers of his office. When, for instance, he didn’t like The Washington Post’s reporting about him, he made it clear—on Twitter, fittingly enough—that, because the paper is owned by Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, he would like to disadvantage Amazon however he can, including by demanding that the U.S. Postal Service raise its shipping rates. Here, the executive order is so scattershot, and the legislation so crudely sweeping, that it’s important to recognize that it conveys more than its text says. What it really says is: We can make you hurt unless you do what we want, and what we want is what helps the president personally. [Emphasis added.]

Yep: full marks. That’s the nub of Trump’s authoritarian threat. Same as Erdogan, Orban, Bolsonaro & Co.

So what does Zittrain think we should do?

“In the near term, the simplest solution is to vote Trump out of office.”

Well, yes: but you don’t have to be a bi-Chaired Harvard prof to come to that conclusion.

What if that option doesn’t work?

“In the longer term”, says Zittrain,

the most promising path for online content moderation lies in taking up unavoidable decisions by the largest companies in ways that respect the gravity of those decisions — likely involving outside parties in structured, visible roles — and, even more important, in decentralizing the flows of information online so that no one company can readily change the map.

So when Twitter tempers its deference and wades into a fraught zone by fact-checking in its own voice, still judged in the public sphere by its attention to the real facts, I respect its decision. One way to try to break what is raging behavior even—and especially—by a president is to create policies to deal with it, policies that would collect dust if the rule of law and the institutions designed to reinforce it were not under such extraordinary and explicit attack.

Yeah, sure. But this seems a bit feeble after the build-up. What might those policies look like? And how might we ‘decentralize’ those information flows?

Maybe there’s a sequel to this piece coming. If so I can’t wait.


Quarantine diary — Day 98

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Friday 26 June, 2020

Fuchsia

In our garden, this morning. One of my favourite plants, which has really thrived this year, for reasons unknown. Trouble is, it makes me nostalgic for County Kerry, which has more fuchsia hedges than anywhere else in the known world (IMHO).


Grandparents are critical workers too

Interesting long read (estimated reading time 15 minutes) in De Correspondent, a journalistic outfit to which I subscribe.

In a world where half of all Dutch families regularly ask grandparents to provide childcare, and those in other countries do so too; where care provided by grandparents in the UK saves over £7bn each year; and where a significant proportion of US, Filipino and Romanian children are raised by their grandparents, it’s safe to say that grandparents play a key role in shaping future generations.

The different generations are much more closely intertwined than we like to admit. Seen in this light, it’s a shame that many older adults are now being described, first and foremost, as “vulnerable”. If only because our collective strength is not defined by our ability to separate “the vulnerable” from “everybody else” but, as Amy Davidson Sorkin aptly wrote in a recent piece for the New Yorker, “by our willingness to stand together”.

“Covid-19 has caused generations to become increasingly separated from one another,” Gopnik says. “It was already happening in many places, but I think the pandemic makes us realise even more how much we depend on the fact that we have grandparents involved in caring for grandchildren. It makes it really vivid that we’ve sort of neglected those two ends of the life-span.” It also makes vivid the loss that ensues when grandparents and grandchildren are unable to interact.

I know it sounds like special pleading (I’m a grandfather) but I’ve been struck time and again — and not just in the pandemic — about this. I come from a rural culture where (just like parts of Italy, say) there’s always been extensive extended-family groups living in close proximity. But when socially-mobile or ambitious children leave that kind of environment — to live and work, say, in large urban conurbations far away — and then themselves start to have children, suddenly the conflicts between the demands of work and those of childcare become acute. My wife and I both brought up broods without any help whatsoever from our parents, and it made life much more demanding in all kinds of ways. State childcare provision in the UK is abysmal and inadequate by Continental European standards, and so families with young children have much less flexibility when both parents need to be out of the house. Way back in the Ireland I grew up in, that problem didn’t exist. The kids would simply wander round to Granny and Grandad’s place.

The figure of £7B is just an estimate of what parents in the Uk would have to fork out for childcare if their parents weren’t helping. I suspect it’s a huge under-estimate.

That’s not to say that there aren’t downsides to extended families living close together. Apart from the privacy aspects, there’s also the fact that initial impact of the Coronavirus seemed higher in cultures where multiple generations live together.


How to report the spread of a pandemic

The New York Times has produced a terrific animated-graphic-plus-succinct-narrative account. It’s a very good example of how to use digital tools to visualise and communicate a dynamic process.

Well worth a visit. Give it time.


The history of the humble (and not so humble) door handle

A doorknob is a key part of the user-interface of a building. Yet until Covid-19 I’d never given much thought to it — except sometimes in exasperation when realising that a handle is better than a knob for many people and many purposes. And it never occurred to me that it might have an interesting history. Which, of course it has. And it’s had some famous designers in its time. For example:

Arguably the most influential, although not necessarily familiar, door handle was designed not by an architect but by a philosopher – albeit one with an engineering degree. Ludwig Wittgenstein’s handle for the house he designed for his sister in Vienna in 1928 is a simple bent metal bar with one of the pair kinked to accommodate a portion of frame for the French doors it was designed for. It apparently took him a year to design (he spent two years on the radiators), but that simple bent bar morphed into the bent tube which is perhaps the most ubiquitous and generic of all modern designs.

And, needless to say, that reminds me Of an old schoolboy joke: “Was Handel a crank?”


Zoom Hell

Lovely New Yorker cartoon.


Is Digital Contact Tracing Over Before It Began?

Sobering post by Jonathan Zittrain. The momentum towards contact-tracing seems to be on the wane, he thinks.

The work on planning and standing up contact tracing is being overtaken by a public sensibility that the disease has been sufficiently managed for things to more or less return to normal. Where before, the question of voluntary participation in a tracing and isolation scheme was seen as how to get from, say, 50% participation up to 70% or more by the general public, the question now is whether nearly anyone would bother to install or use contact tracing tools at all — or, apps aside, change their behavior should they receive a call indicating that they’ve been exposed by someone who has tested positive. In New York, contract tracers are having a hard time completing interviews. And in Massachusetts, a mixed bag: on the one hand, so many contact tracers were admirably stood up so quickly that there isn’t enough work to go around. On the other hand, most of the cases being diagnosed haven’t been identified beforehand through contact tracing — which means that transmission chains can’t be pruned.

Contact-tracing requires testing. And testing capacity in parts of the US is currently being overwhelmed. On the tech front, Zittrain sees “a plateau in visible activity on the tech side of the ledger since the May 20, 2020, launch of the Apple/Google exposure notification framework”. And it doesn’t seem that any state has yet approved or launched an exposure notification app based upon the framework.

Efforts outside of the United States have made a little more progress. Switzerland has led the charge, piloting an app that implements the Apple/Google framework within hospitals, government agencies, and the military. Other nations — many of them among the 22 granted access to the Apple/Google framework in May — are developing and deploying apps of their own. We’ve also seen the emergence of a number of apps not based on the Apple-Google framework, including in Singapore and Australia.

So it’s all incredibly patchy. So much for tech ‘solutionism’ in this crisis.

So what now? Zittrain sets out two possibilities: the Swedish model and what he calls the ‘Company Town’ model.

The Swedish model is basically to

re-open all but the most high-spreading services and events; ask people to exercise social distancing where they can; have people wear cloth masks to minimize the spread of the moisture in their breath to others; and try to make available testing so that people who wish to know if they’re infected can find out and then self-isolate if they test positive or show worrisome symptoms.

The other option is interestingly different:

It’s one in which some big companies and institutions decide to implement their own test/trace/isolate regimes as employees return to workplaces. A company whose employees don’t physically interact much with the public during the day — an insurance company, or a tech firm like Facebook or Google — might require its employees to undergo regular testing, and then cease coming to work if they test positive. Such a company could stand up its own tracing program, and use data from company-issued devices, with notice to employees and no permitted opt-out, to assist in that tracing. Those who are deemed to have been exposed can also be required not to come to work. Universities might choose to require much the same for their faculty, staff, and students.

The overall regime may thus remain nominally a voluntary one, with respect to government coercion, but participation in private regimes like this will be by choice only in the sense that employees can quit their jobs, or students can choose to drop out of school, if they don’t want to participate in their institutions’ programs. And it of course leaves most people behind: if you don’t work for an institution that can pull off its own internal testing and tracing, you won’t directly benefit from such a program.

It looks as though this latter option is what Cambridge University will adopt — to name just one non-corporate example — because it now has the capacity to do all of that stuff.

But when you look at the bigger picture, this ‘company town’ approach would be a disaster for inequality, and maybe even for democracy. A bit like neoliberalism, in fact.

There’s no substitute for state capacity here, rigorously, competently and fairly administered. And the big questions for us is: can the UK actually do it?


Quarantine diary — Day 97

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Saturday 20 June, 2020

Quote of the Day

Another sign of Mr Trump’s interest in books came during the Black Lives Matter protests, when he appeared outside a Washington DC church holding a Bible. It was a deeply sinister move. And also a reminder to rewatch the interview where he claims the Bible is his favourite book but can’t seem to recall any verses. Asked whether he’s an “Old Testament guy or a News Testament guy”, he hesitates before replying “probably equal”. Evangelical Christians, you don’t have to vote for him.

  • Henry Mance, Financial Times, 20/21 June, 2020

A Coronavirus Quiz

Below is a statement made by Matt Hancock, Secretary of State for Health, the House of Commons.

We have a clear four-part plan to respond to the outbreak of this disease: contain, delay, research and mitigate. We are taking all necessary measures to minimise the risk to the public. We have put in place enhanced monitoring measures at UK airports, and health information is available at all international airports, ports and international train stations. We have established a supported isolation facility at Heathrow to cater for international passengers who are tested, and to maximise infection control and free up NHS resources.

We are working closely with the World Health Organisation, the G7 and the wider international community to ensure that we are ready for all eventualities. We are co-ordinating research efforts with international partners. Our approach has at all times been guided by ​the chief medical officer, working on the basis of the best possible scientific evidence. The public can be assured that we have a clear plan to contain, delay, research and mitigate, and that we are working methodically through each step to keep the public safe.

Question: On what date was this statement made?

Answer: At the end of this day’s post.


The Covid-19 pandemic has offered advance sight of post-Brexit Britain.

Lovely FT column by Philip Stephens the other day.

“The mantra of Boris Johnson’s government”, he writes, “is that”,

unshackled from the EU, the nation will be “world-beating”. Free to make national choices and set its own scenery on the international stage, it will champion free trade from its own seat at the World Trade Organization and decide its own policies for global challenges such as climate change.

For Mr Johnson the pandemic was a chance for the UK to show its strengths and demonstrate what it could do in its new guise as a truly “sovereign” nation reborn as “Global Britain”. This explains perhaps his confidence when the outbreak began to take hold in early March. Back then, remember, Mr Johnson boasted of shaking hands with doctors during a hospital visit.

The bullish message from Downing Street recalled that Britain is home to some of the very best epidemiological scientists and research institutes: Johnson called them “world-leading”, in a variation on the his usual “world-beating” theme.

No government was better prepared. Britain had rehearsed for such an emergency in 2016 and stockpiled supplies. Exercise Cygnus, it was called. Of course, there also was the “fantastic” NHS. Britain would show the world how it was done.

Unhappily, Covid-19 does not pay attention to theoretical notions of sovereignty or to national borders. Far from the best, Britain’s performance fighting the virus has been dismal, leaving it at the bottom of the league of comparable European states.

The problem is, says Stephens,

the yawning gap between assumed superiority and actual performance. Mr Johnson and his colleagues promote an image of Britain’s capabilities that is steeped in nostalgia for past greatness rather than shaped by contemporary appraisal. As one British diplomat puts it: “There is just an assumption that we do these things so much better than our European neighbours.”

The other lesson has been that sovereignty may provide the notional freedom to act, but that is not the same as the capacity to achieve national goals. Working outside the EU did not take Britain to the front of the queue in the scramble to secure medical supplies from China and India. So it will prove with post-Brexit trade deals.

Yep. The lack of UK state capacity revealed by the crisis is one of its most salutary lessons.


Deaths of despair

Atul Gawande has a long and absorbing essay in the New Yorker about Anne Case’s and Angus Deaton’s Deaths of Despair and the Future of Capitalism, a landmark investigation into why working-age white men and women without college degrees were dying from suicide, drug overdoses, and alcohol-related liver disease at such rates that, for three consecutive years, life expectancy for the U.S. population as a whole had fallen.

The surprise (for me anyway) is that this isn’t all about opioid addiction, though that plays a role. A key part of the answer, they maintain, is education — or, more accurately, the absence of it. Case and Deaton argue that the rise in deaths of despair is the consequence of the cumulative effect of a long economic stagnation and the way the US as a nation has dealt with it.

In the past four decades, Americans without bachelor’s degrees—the majority of the working-age population—have seen themselves become ever less valued in our economy. Their effort and experience provide smaller rewards than before, and they encounter longer periods between employment. It should come as no surprise that fewer continue to seek employment, and that more succumb to despair.

The problem isn’t that people are not the way they used to be. It’s that the economy and the structure of work are not the way they used to be. This has had devastating effects on the family and on community life. In 1980, rates of marriage by middle age were about eighty per cent for white people with and without bachelor’s degrees alike. As the economic prospects of those two groups have diverged, however, so have their marriage prospects. Today, about seventy-five per cent of college graduates are married by age forty-five, but only sixty per cent of non-college graduates are. Nonmarital childbearing has reached forty per cent among less educated white women. Parents without bachelor’s degrees are also now dramatically less likely to have a stable partner for rearing and financially supporting their children.

Unsurprisingly, one of the big factors they identify is the American healthcare system. The focus of their indictment is on the way that America’s health-care system is peculiarly reliant on employer-provided insurance. “As they show”, writes Gawande,

the premiums that employers pay amount to a perverse tax on hiring lower-skilled workers. According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, in 2019 the average family policy cost twenty-one thousand dollars, of which employers typically paid seventy per cent. “For a well-paid employee earning a salary of $150,000, the average family policy adds less than 10 percent to the cost of employing the worker,” Case and Deaton write. “For a low-wage worker on half the median wage, it is 60 percent.” Even as workers’ wages have stagnated or declined, then, the cost to their employers has risen sharply. One recent study shows that, between 1970 and 2016, the earnings that laborers received fell twenty-one per cent. But their total compensation, taken to include the cost of their benefits (in particular, health care), rose sixty-eight per cent. Increases in health-care costs have devoured take-home pay for those below the median income. At the same time, the system practically begs employers to reduce the number of less skilled workers they hire, by outsourcing or automating their positions. In Case and Deaton’s analysis, this makes American health care itself a prime cause of our rising death rates.

Their overall conclusion is that

capitalism, having failed America’s less educated workers for decades, must change, as it has in the past. “There have been previous periods when capitalism failed most people, as the Industrial Revolution got under way at the beginning of the nineteenth century, and again after the Great Depression,” they write. “But the beast was tamed, not slain.”

So the question from their work turns out to be the same question that is now everywhere: are we capable of again taming the beast?


Quarantine diary — Day 91

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Quiz Answer: Tuesday February 26, 2020 Hansard link


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.


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Sunday 17 May, 2020

Parenting is a full-time job in a pandemic

Outside our kitchen window, this evening.


Facebook’s ‘oversight board’ is proof that it wants to be regulated – by itself

This morning’s Observer column:

Here we go again. Facebook, a tech company that suffers from the delusion that it’s a nation state, has had another go at pretending that it is one. Originally, you will recall, it was going to create a global currency called Libra and in effect become shadow banker to the world. Strangely, a world that normally seems hypnotised by Facebook turned out to be distinctly unimpressed by that idea; after all, who would trust Facebook with money? So the project is effectively evaporating into something that looks a bit like PayPal, which is not quite what Facebook’s supreme leader, Mark Zuckerberg, had in mind.

Nothing daunted, though, Zuck has had another hubristic idea. On the grounds that Facebook is the world’s largest information-exchange autocracy (population 2.6 billion) he thinks that it should have its own supreme court. (Yes, that’s the expression he originally used: later, wiser councils – possibly a guy called Nick Clegg – persuaded him that that might be just a tad presumptuous.) So it’s now just an “oversight board for content decisions”, complete with its own charter and a 40-strong board of big shots who will, it seems, have the power “to reverse Facebook’s decisions about whether to allow or remove certain posts on the platform”. Sounds impressive, doesn’t it? But it looks rather less so when you realise what it will actually be doing. It’s actually a board for locking the stable door after the horses have bolted. Let us call the Facebook oversight board by its initials: FOB…

Read on


Introducing Colonel Johnson (late of the Light Brigade), and his batman, Cummings

There’s a new comedy duo on the British political scene.

Unfortunately, they don’t make people laugh.

See today’s Quarantine Diary for details.


The rise and rise of conspiracist thinking

The Atlantic has a fascinating new series on a topic that until 2016 most people (though not me and my academic colleagues) thought was only of fringe interest.

Five substantial essays.


Quarantine diary — Day 57

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Saturday 16 May, 2020

The Brexit app

Why should proximity-sensing apps be restricted to detecting people who might be infected with a mere virus? Robert Shrimsley of the FT thinks we should also have an app “tailored to your political persuasion so that you never have to meet anyone with the opposite view on leaving the EU. This way you can create the perfect real world filter bubble. If you are a Remainer, the effect will be rather like living in Richmond.”


John Gray’s version of the future is the most realistic one

Yesterday I mentioned John Gray’s insight that the best guide to a post-Covid future is not provided by past pandemics but by 9/11. Our world was dramatically changed by that terrorist attack and the subsequent reactions of Western societies to the danger of Islamic terrorism. What made it especially difficult was, as one very senior British government official once put it to me, “there’s nobody one can negotiate with; and nothing one can negotiate about”. (This was in 2007; he was talking about the difference between Islamic terrorism and the IRA.) 9/11 added new layers of friction and difficulty to our lives. We felt it most directly in relation to air travel, but it manifested itself in countless other areas too — for example in onerous checks on any large bank transfer, records of travel to certain parts of the world, YouTube videos that were risky to watch, and so on. But we got used to it and put up with it, patiently putting our liquids into transparent plastic bags, taking off belts and shoes, leaving pen-knives at home whenever we went through an airport, etc.

Covid-19 will have similar long-term effects, introducing another layer of friction into our lives. Social distancing will be a norm for a long time — maybe 4 years until a reliable vaccine arrives and is distributed effectively. Everyone being expected to wear a mask in public. Travellers to other countries will have to produce a certificate of immunity, like the Rabies certificates currently required when transporting dogs. Many of the most basic acts of human solidarity — hugging or kissing someone, even shaking hands will continue to be verboten. And every stranger is potentially a risk.

We’ll adapt to this. Humans always do. But our lives will be marginally or even greatly impoverished for a long time to come. That’s why this pandemic is a crisis: crises really change things.

There is, however, one difference from 9/11’s impact: whereas Islamic terrorists wanted to destroy Western ‘infidel’ society, the virus has no interest in doing anything other than surviving and reproducing. There’s no ‘enemy’ to fear or hate or negotiate with. (Which of course is the aspect of the virus that so discombobulates Trump, and why he’s trying to pin it on China.)


The Richest Neighborhoods Emptied Out Most as Coronavirus Hit New York City

Headline on an interesting New York Times story. Data from a variety of sources suggest that the affluent areas of the city emptied out quickly and most comprehensively. In his Journal of a Plague Year Daniel Defoe described the same phenomenon in London in 1655.

Plus ca change.

It’s never the case that “we’re all in it together”.


Why those who can ‘work from home’ remain paid and valued — even if they’re doing very little — while others simply have to go out to work if they want to be valued

Lovely essay by Will Davies on the liberal and neoliberal concepts of people as economic agents. In the (classic) liberal view, workers are essentially ‘hired hands’, and the neoliberal idea that people are ‘social capital’

Within the American neoliberal imaginary described by Foucault, all human beings can be understood as ‘human capital’. A construction worker, a taxi driver or a factory worker could all acquire skills, change their ‘brand’ or seek a new niche, where ‘profits’ can be made. But sociological reality falls short of this. Austrian neoliberals always believed that entrepreneurship was a rare quality, and that most people were unable to endure such a solitary and burdensome existence (the mental health trajectory of neoliberal America suggests they may have had a point). Meanwhile, Feher argues that actually existing neoliberalism tends to rely on all-encompassing surveillance infrastructures with which to ‘rate’ us, as an alternative to relying on personal flexibility and disruption.

The inequalities that have become visible due to Covid-19 suggest a different way of thinking about this. It’s not simply that some work can happen at home, while other forms of work can’t; it’s that some people retain the liberal status of ‘labour’, and others have the neoliberal status of ‘human capital’, even if they are not in risky or entrepreneurial positions. To be a labourer, one gets paid in exchange for units of time (hours, weeks, months). To be human capital, one can continue to draw income by virtue of those who continue to believe in you and wish to sustain a relationship with you. This includes banks … but it is also clients and other partners. The former is a cruder market relation, whereas the latter is a more moral and financial logic, that potentially produces more enduring bonds of obligation and duty.

The furlough scheme disguises the difference, but one of the divisions at work here is between those whose market value is measurable as orthodox productivity (cleaning, driving, cooking etc), and those whose market value is a more complex form of socio-economic reputation, that they can retain even while doing very little. The likely truth is that there are all manner of people in the latter category, who are unfurloughed, ‘working from home’ but doing very little work because of caring responsibilities, anxiety or because there simply isn’t work to do. And yet their employers continue to pay them, because their relation is not one of supply and demand, but of mutual belief between capitals.

The issue of childcare becomes relevant here. As Melinda Cooper and Feher have both argued, neoliberalism dissolves the distinction between market and family life. Responsible personhood is both enterprising and caring, both financially creditable and morally dutiful. Entrepreneurship and parenthood are synthesised into a single ethos of flexibility and optimism. While this is undoubtedly very stressful, it is more practically compatible with the current Covid-created situation, in which a balance must be struck between paid and unpaid work, that is responsive to demands. For the white collar ‘human capital’ parent, it is reasonable to explain that they will be working at less than the usual rate due to childcare, and expect full pay. For the parent who is paid to labour, there is no justification (or no currently dominant justification) for continuing to pay them for more hours than they put in.

Davies thinks that this explains how the politics of the Coronavirus is now playing out.

If a person has the status of an asset, they are embedded in a much longer-term flow of investment and return, that is knitted together via a combination of balance sheets, mutual trust and duty. As Cooper stresses, the neoliberal subject is never simply a calculator, but also the maker and recipient of promises and pledges over the long-term. It’s not simply that such a person ‘works from home’ (it’s possible that they don’t), while others ‘go to work’; it’s that human capital is valued via an element of faith which can endure, and not a simple transaction.

The reason the Prime Minister wants others to be ‘encouraged’ back to work is because they are only valued and valuable while they are working. They don’t exist within a logic of investment and return, but one of exchange. Even if these people could do their work from home (imagine, say, a telesales assistant), they would not enjoy the same ability to integrate their work with childcare; there wouldn’t be the same levels of sympathy and humour when children disrupt their work; they are not being employed as an integrated moral-financial asset with a private life, but for the labour that they can expend in an alienating fashion.

Great stuff from one of the sharpest minds around.


Quarantine diary — Day 56

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Sunday 10 May, 2020

RIP Little Richard

They don’t make them like that any more.

Link


Most extensive study to date of who’s most vulnerable to Covid-19 in the UK

A pre-print (i.e. non-peer-reviewed) version of “Factors associated with COVID-19-related hospital death in the linked electronic health records of 17 million adult NHS patients” has just been published. It’s a statistician’s delight (i.e. pretty complicated) but my reading of it is that it confirms two things — one expected, and one disturbing (thought not all that surprising). The first is that certain ill-health preconditions do indeed make people more vulnerable to Covid-19. The second is that people from non-white backgrounds and poor people are also more vulnerable, but for reasons that don’t include medical pre-conditions. Doesn’t take much imagination to suggest what lies behind that.

But that’s just my interpretation. Here’s what the authors say:

Policy Implications and Interpretation

The UK has a policy of recommending shielding (i.e. minimising face to face contact) for groups identified as being extremely vulnerable to COVID-19 on the basis of pre-existing medical conditions. We were able to evaluate the association between most of these conditions and death from COVID-19, and confirm that people with these conditions do have substantially increased mortality risk, supporting the shielding strategy. We have demonstrated -for the first time – that only a small part of the substantially increased risks of death from COVID-19 among non-white groups and among people living in more deprived areas can be attributed to existing disease. Improved strategies to protect people in these groups from COVID-19 need urgent consideration.


If we want better conditions for Amazon staff we need to be patient…

This morning’s Observer column:

Tim Bray resigned as an Amazon vice-president last week. “Who he?” I hear you say. And why is this news significant? Answers: first, Bray is an ubergeek who’s an alumnus of many of the outfits in tech’s hall of fame (including DEC, Sun Microsystems, the OED project at the University of Waterloo, Google’s Android team and, eventually, Amazon Web Services); and second, he resigned on an issue of principle – something as rare as hen’s teeth in the tech industry.

In his blog, he wrote: “I quit in dismay at Amazon firing whistleblowers who were making noise about warehouse employees frightened of Covid-19.” It was an expensive decision. Bray said the decision to resign would probably cost him more than a million dollars in salary and shares, and that he regretted leaving a job he enjoyed, working with good colleagues. “So I’m pretty blue.”

Do read the whole thing


Rich people’s problems

James Max has a column in the weekend Financial Times under the heading “Rich People’s Problems”. I can never work out if it’s satire, but even if it’s not it’s amusing. This weekend he’s contemplating the problems nobs have under lockdown conditions.

Lockdown “haves” are those with gardens, a half-decent wine cellar and a dog or two for on-demand social contact. Trappings such as sports cars, watches, black cards [Eh?], bling, boats, private jets and club membership are somewhat superfluous to our existence now. Many avenues for spending money are also closed off (as someone whose social life revolved around going on for lunch and dinner, it’s been tough).

But worse than that? For now, I have no domestic help. This is “situation critical”.

The wealthy can no longer run a finger along the skirting board or windowsill, tut and make a mental note to have a word with their cleaner…

You get the point. I think it’s satire. Maybe.


Naomi Klein on the ‘Screen New Deal’

Splendid blast in The Intercept by the famous activist against the tech industry’s pivot to perceiving the pandemic as the opportunity of a lifetime to redefine our futures.

For a few fleeting moments during New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s daily coronavirus briefing on Wednesday, the somber grimace that has filled our screens for weeks was briefly replaced by something resembling a smile.

“We are ready, we’re all-in,” the governor gushed. “We are New Yorkers, so we’re aggressive about it, we’re ambitious about it. … We realize that change is not only imminent, but it can actually be a friend if done the right way.”

The inspiration for these uncharacteristically good vibes was a video visit from former Google CEO Eric Schmidt, who joined the governor’s briefing to announce that he will be heading up a blue-ribbon commission to reimagine New York state’s post-Covid reality, with an emphasis on permanently integrating technology into every aspect of civic life…

Thought-provoking and original. I mention it in today’s Diary (below).


Quarantine diary — Day 50

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Monday 4 May, 2020

Paul Romer on fizzy drinks and Covid-19 testing

Lovely thought-experiment by a Nobel laureate: “Imagine a world”, he writes, “in which the only way to get a soda is to get your doctor to write a prescription”.

It costs $20 per can. Your insurance company pays. The economy produces about 100,000 sodas each day. If you lived in this world, do you think you could get people to scale up the production of soda to a level of millions of cans per day? It would be a challenge, but not because it is hard to produce and distribute soda. This is the point of the thought-experiment.

Because they have to keep total costs from running out of control, insurance companies, health care providers, and government regulators have cobbled together a system that limits access to soda. One part of this system is an expensive regulatory process that has to approve: the ingredients in each particular brand of soda; the paper insert that comes with the soda informing patients about its risks and benefits; and the delivery system used by the soda supplier, be it a glass bottle, an aluminum can, a paper cup, etc.

Then, suddenly, everyone decides that they want more soda. Why, they ask, can’t the nation produce enough soda for everyone to have some each day? Here’s what happens:

  1. The only people who can get sodas are those already under the care of the health care system. They are not thirsty, but the insurance company covers the cost, so whatever.

  2. People who are thirsty start going to the hospital just to get soda. Doctors comply with their requests for a prescription. Soda producers try to increase output, but soon run into “bottlenecks.” One vendor with an approved soda delivery system that packages a straw with a can finds that its supplier of straws can not keep up with the increased demand. This soda company explains to its unhappy customers that it has FDA approval only for a product that includes a straw from its traditional supplier. The soda company says that it is applying to the FDA for an Emergency Use Authorization (EUA) that gives it permission to bundle a can with a straw from a different vendor. As it waits, it keeps repeating its excuse: “There is a straw bottleneck!”

  3. Meanwhile, researchers on university campuses discover that you do not need a straw. But these researchers have no reason to go through the laborious process of filing for an Emergency Use Authorization that allows drinking from the can. The “straw bottleneck” persists.

  4. In their experiments with drinking from the can, these same university researchers realize soda is just flavored sugar water and that they could produce millions of sodas per day at a price well under $1 per can. The researchers publicize their findings. Policy wonks urge them to get going: “Produce the sodas that a thirsty nation needs.” But these do not say anything about who will pay for all these additional sodas. The researchers are good sports, but they are not idiots. They produce some token batches of soda and go back to writing papers.

  5. The wonks are surprised to discover that their meetings and documents do not yield the soda supply surge they anticipate.

  6. Everyone gets discouraged. The wonks conclude that even an economic system as big, as powerful, and as innovative as the one we have established in the United States cannot rise to the challenge of producing millions of sodas per day. They settle for a stretch goal of offering one soda per month to each family.

For sodas read Covid-19 tests and you get the point.

This is a nice example of making complex processes comprehensible by translating them into everyday scenarios. I used a similar approach in my Slouching towards Dystopia essay to try and get readers to appreciate the absurdity of surveillance methods that would be regarded as abominable in real life and yet are passively accepted in the online world.


COVID-19 and the future of ‘techlash’

Before the pandemic, the world was slowly but surely converging on the conclusion that the tech giants needed to be regulated. One of the most depressing consequences of the pandemic is that any enthusiasm for meaningful regulation will now evaporate, if only because states have discovered the extent to which life can’t go on without some of the services that these companies provide.

Chris Meserole, A Fellow in Foreign Policy at the Brookings Institution, has a sombre essay on this theme. “The tech industry”, he writes,

is likely to end the pandemic even more entrenched and powerful than when the crisis started. Prior concerns about the industry’s market power, privacy practices, and content moderation policies—all of which posed a major challenge just months ago—no longer enjoy the same political salience.

Of course, that is not to say the problems that drove the backlash have disappeared altogether. Indeed, in a country whose unemployment rolls have grown by over 25 million in four weeks, the concentration of so much wealth and power in so few companies remains a profound policy challenge. Likewise, with even more of our work and lives now taking place online, the security and integrity of our data is more vital than ever.

Yet the pandemic has reset the relative importance of those issues. Managing the COVID-19 crisis and its aftermath are now the biggest policy challenges we face—and so long as that remains the case, the techlash will remain on hold.

He’s right. And that’s worrying.

And while we’re on that topic, the Verge has an interesting interview with Stacey Mitchell, co-director of the Institute for Local Self-reliance, in which there’s this interesting passage:

I think in the midst of the pandemic, the kind of power that these companies have is more exposed than ever. I mean, obviously, our whole lives, how we interact with one another, how we engage in commerce, has now sort of all collapsed onto the web. And you have a handful of gatekeepers in that context, including Amazon. So I do think it’s really underscored some of the arguments that I’ve been making, that others have been making, about how Amazon serves as a kind of essential infrastructure and what the dangers are of allowing that infrastructure to be entirely privately controlled without regulation.

I mean, if we don’t have any oversight over Amazon, we’re effectively allowing it to regulate our economy as a private entity — to decide which products succeed and fail, which companies succeed and fail, which communities succeed and fail. Is that really the kind of future that we want to have? I think the other thing that the pandemic is really exposing quite profoundly is how vulnerable our society is because of inequality. I mean, we see this in the numbers of people who have very little cushion or slack in their lives to fall back on during the economic stresses.


At last, some independent, informed scientific opinion that’s all in the open and not tainted by political considerations

Sir David King, who was Chief Scientific Advisor to the Blair government, has become so pissed off by the secretiveness of SAGE, the body of scientific advisers whose advice the government has supposedly been following, that he decided to launch a truly independent equivalent project, all of whose deliberations would be in the open –i.e. broadcast live on YouTube. It’s called Independent SAGE and you can find it here — the livestream is recorded and available to those who weren’t able to catch it live. I watched the first session live today and found it interesting, informative and valuable. There were occasional tech glitches of the kind that will be familiar to anyone condemned to use Zoom (or indeed any of the current video-conferencing tools), but overall it was pretty good. I learned quite a lot from it. Which is more than can be said for the daily government ‘briefings’.


Quarantine diary — Day 44

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Sunday 12 April, 2020

Surveillance and the pandemic: it doesn’t have to be a nightmare

This morning’s Observer column:

The capabilities of this technology would make totalitarian leaders drool. On the other hand, it appears to be very effective in helping countries to manage the crisis. And it is probably not a coincidence that the democratic societies that appear to have coped best – South Korea, Taiwan, Singapore, for example – have evolved from, er, authoritarian pasts. In normal circumstances, liberal democracies would have to think very hard about intruding so comprehensively into their citizens’ privacy.

But these are not normal times, and it seems likely that western governments will move to deploy smartphone tracking as a way of monitoring and controlling the pandemic. When they do there will be an explosion of (understandable) outrage from civil liberties organisations, but governments will ride roughshod over these with reassuring bromides about how such “emergency” measures will be rolled back once the crisis has passed. Recent history (think 9/11) does not provide much comfort here. And we are going to have zoonotic-virus crises for the foreseeable future, so the “war against the virus” will become like the war on terror.

In that sense, we seem to be heading into a nightmarish future. But it doesn’t have to be that way…

Read on

MORE This is a fast-moving topic. Since I wrote the column lots of useful related stuff has appeared. For example:

  • An excellent White Paper by The ACLU which provides useful background on some of the privacy issues under five headings: 1. What’s the goal of the deployment? 2.What data? Is it aggregate and anonymized data, or individually identifying information? How precisely can the information pinpoint individuals’ locations? 3. Who gets the data? Does the government get access to the raw data, is it shared only with public health entities such as qualified academics or hospitals, or does it remain in the hands of the private entity that originally collected it? 4. How is the data used? For centralized government action,such as issuing or enforcing quarantine orders,or for punitive measures? 5. What is the life cycle of the data? When will it be deleted?
  • Apple and Google are collaborating on cross-platform technology to do some of this stuff. The joint venture includes application programming interfaces (APIs) and operating system-level technology to assist in enabling contact tracing. First, in May, both companies will release APIs that enable interoperability between Android and iOS devices using apps from public health authorities. These official apps will be available for users to download via their respective app stores. Second, in the coming months, Apple and Google will work to enable a broader Bluetooth-based contact tracing platform by building this functionality into the underlying platforms. This is a more robust solution than an API and would allow more individuals to participate, if they choose to opt in, as well as enable interaction with a broader ecosystem of apps and government health authorities.
  • Cory Doctorow wrote an accessible explanation of the proposed technology, and followed it up with a link to a paper by French cryptographer Serge Vaudenay arguing that there are some potentially severe risks in the proposals advanced so far — “sick and reported people may be deanonymized, private encounters may be revealed, and people may be coerced to reveal the private data they collect”.

The overall project, though, is a fascinating example of collective IQ in action.


“Death comes to all — but in America it has long been considered reasonable to offer the best chance of delay to the highest bidder”.

Terrific New Yorker essay by Zadie Smith which manages to be both sardonic and impassioned.

Not that there is anything ridiculous about trying to lengthen the distance between the dates on our birth certificates and the ones on our tombstones: ethical life depends on the meaningfulness of that effort. But perhaps nowhere in the world has this effort—and its relative success—been linked so emphatically to money as it is in America. Maybe this is why plagues—being considered insufficiently hierarchical in nature, too inattentive to income disparity—were long ago relegated to history in the American imagination, or to other continents. In fact, as he made clear early on in his Presidency, entire “shithole” countries were to be considered culpable for their own high death rates—they were by definition in the wrong place (over there) at the wrong time (an earlier stage of development). Such places were plagued in the permanent sense, by not having the foresight to be America. Even global mass extinction—in the form of environmental collapse—was not going to reach America, or would reach it only ultimately, at the very last minute. Relatively secure, in its high-walled haven, America would feast on whatever was left of its resources, still great by comparison with the suffering out there, beyond its borders.

This is about the US but it reminds one of why the ubiquitous government trope that “we are all in this together” is so nauseating.


Quarantine diary — Day 22

Link


Errata: The link to the Toby Ord talk mentioned in yesterday’s edition was missing. It’s here

Apologies.