Friday 7 August, 2020

Quote of the Day

Immunology Is Where Intuition Goes to Die

Think ‘sanctions’ will trouble China? Think again.

Fascinating essay by Ai Weiwei, the Chinese artist and activist.

The US cold war with the Soviet Union was over ideology, but today’s standoff with China is different. The Chinese state has no ideology, no religion, no moral agenda. It continues wearing socialist garb but only as a face-saving pretence. It has, in fact, become a state-capitalist dictatorship. What the world sees today is a contest between the US system of free-market capitalism and Chinese state capitalism. How should we read this chessboard?

With hindsight, it’s almost comical to reflect on the West’s naiveté and wishful delusions about China. The high point of it, I suppose, was the idea of Cameron and Osborne about a new “golden era” opening up for UK-China trade and other relations. I remember the University’s pathetic nervousness about demonstrations and other signs of hostility when Xi Jinping came to visit Cambridge. And then of course there were the fond illusions of many other UK universities who were so keen to open campuses in China.

Ai Weiwei was never impressed by our naiveté.

Washington bears much of the responsibility for what has happened. In the years after the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989, administrations of both parties touted the absurd theory that the best plan was to let China get rich and then watch as freedom and democracy evolved as byproducts of capitalist development.

But did capitalist competition, that ravenous machine that can chew up anything, change China? The regime’s politics did not change a whit. What did change was the US, whose business leaders now approached the Chinese dictatorship with obsequious smiles. Here, after all, was an exciting new business partner: master of a realm in which there were virtually no labour rights or health and safety regulations, no frustrating delays because of squabbles between political parties, no criticism from free media, and no danger of judgment by independent courts. For European and US companies doing manufacture for export, it was a dream come true.

In a way, it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that the hawks on China were right. We’re now back in a bi-polar world. China is a systemic challenge and has to be approached as such. What’s needed on the Western side is a new George Kennan. What we’ve got instead is a posturing imbecile in the White House.

So what would be a sensible approach for the West to adopt?

Tim Garton Ash suggested some answers in a Guardian piece last month.

We need to:

  • Think long term
  • Combine competition and cooperation
  • Focus on China’s internal dynamics
  • Don’t believe we can engineer their system
  • Always remember that we are addressing a society as well as a state
  • Remember that China is not the Soviet Union
  • Unity is strength something that Trump is incapable of understanding)
  • Remember that Cold Wars are won at home

I really like this last point. As Tim says:

By far the most important single thing that liberal democracies did to prevail in the first cold war was to make our own societies prosperous, free, open and attractive. The same will be true this time. A former Chinese student of mine has written a fascinating essay about the attitudes of Chinese students who return home after studying at western universities. His conclusion: the experience of living in the west does not make returning Chinese students, as we might once have hoped, perfect pro-western liberal democrats. Instead, they become “double dissidents”, highly critical of both systems. It’s not our foreign policy that will ultimately convince them. It’s what we do at home.


The Workforce Is About to Change Dramatically

Three predictions for what the future might look like as a result of Covid-19. Mostly about the US, but might be relevant for us too.

1 The “Telepresence” Revolution Will Reshape the U.S. Workforce

Since 2000, as spending on travel, food, and entertainment has surged, employment in leisure and hospitality—a large category that covers restaurants, hotels, and amusement parks—has increased three times faster than the rest of the labor force.

But the boom times for this super-sector may be over, according to the economist David Autor, a co-chair of the MIT Task Force on the Work of the Future. In a new paper co-authored with MIT’s Elisabeth Reynolds, he forecasts that the rise of remote work—or what they call “telepresence”—will lead to a more homebound life that creates less work for others.

2 Remote work will increase free-agent entrepreneurship and decrease collegiality

In the past few decades, the office has served, for many people, as a last community standing. In an age where various associative institutions are in retreat—such as religious congregations, bowling leagues, and unions—there is one place where the majority of adults ages 25 to 55 have kept showing up, almost every day, of almost every week. At work.

Now many companies, thrown headfirst into the remote-work experiment, have had to hurriedly retrofit their office practices for a new world.For many workers, their emotional relationships with colleagues have changed because their spatial relationships with those colleagues have changed. Many white-collar companies have become virtual group chats punctuated by Zooms. This is not business as usual.

3 A Superstar-City Exodus Will Reshape American Politics

Today’s Democratic Party is inefficiently distributed across the country. In 2016, Hillary Clinton won Manhattan and Brooklyn by about 1 million votes—more than Donald Trump’s margins of victory in the states of Florida, Arizona, Georgia, North Carolina, Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania combined. In election after election, liberals dominate in cities, running up huge margins in downtown areas while narrowly losing in sparser places. If Democrats abandoned liberal enclaves and spread into Red America, they could more easily win elections.

This could happen in the UK too. Tory shires beware.

The Impact of COVID-19 on the Nature of Work

Here’s the Abstract of an interesting NBER paper. It reads (in part):

We explore the impact of COVID-19 on employee’s digital communication patterns through an event study of lockdowns in 16 large metropolitan areas in North America, Europe and the Middle East. Using de- identified, aggregated meeting and email meta-data from 3,143,270 users, we find, compared to pre- pandemic levels, increases in the number of meetings per person (+12.9 percent) and the number of attendees per meeting (+13.5 percent), but decreases in the average length of meetings (-20.1 percent). Collectively, the net effect is that people spent less time in meetings per day (-11.5 percent) in the post- lockdown period. We also find significant and durable increases in length of the average workday (+8.2 percent, or +48.5 minutes), along with short-term increases in email activity.


Are humans intelligent?

This is nice: someone asked GPT-3 “are humans intelligent?”

Its answer is interestingly funny and subtle. Here’s an excerpt:

I will attempt to prove this new definition is superior to all previous attempts to define intelligence. First, consider humans’ history. It is a story of repeated failures. First humans thought the Earth was flat. Then they thought the Sun went around the Earth. Then they thought the Earth was the center of the universe. Then they thought the universe was static and unchanging. Then they thought the universe was infinite and expanding. Humans were wrong about alchemy, phrenology, bloodletting, creationism, astrology, numerology, and homeopathy. They were also wrong about the best way to harvest crops, the best way to govern, the best way to punish criminals, and the best way to cure the sick.

I will not go into the many ways humans have been wrong about morality. The list is long and depressing. If humans are so smart, how come they keep being wrong about everything?

So, what does it mean to be intelligent? Well, it’s clearly not the ability to form a correct hypothesis, because humans have failed at that thousands of times. Maybe intelligence is the ability to make the correct decision, but humans are also bad at that. They’re terrible at making decisions about politics, the economy, the environment, technology, education, medicine, and almost everything else. So, if intelligence isn’t the ability to make correct decisions or form correct hypotheses, then what is it?

Good question.

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!