Tuesday 9 March, 2021


Big story of the day

From Politico:

Joe Biden has decided to nominate Lina Khan, a Columbia University legal scholar championed by anti-Big Tech activists, to the Federal Trade Commission. For those of us who study this stuff, this appointment looks like a really big deal.

Along with the recent hiring of Tim Wu as an economic adviser inside the White House … the addition of Khan signals that Biden is poised to pursue an aggressive regulatory agenda when it comes to Amazon, Google, Facebook and other tech giants.

An FBI agent this week was making calls to Khan’s associates for her background check, the final part of the vetting process before a major administration job is officially announced. Sources confirmed Khan is headed to the FTC if she survives Senate confirmation.

The addition of Khan and Wu represents a massive shift in philosophy away from the era of BARACK OBAMA, who proudly forged an alliance between the Democratic Party and Big Tech.

At the end of the 2008 presidential campaign, a top Obama adviser marveled that Google’s ERIC SCHMIDT, then the company’s CEO, had worked so closely with the Obama campaign on its tech infrastructure that the work and advice should have been considered a massive in-kind donation. In office the Obama White House and Silicon Valley had a symbiotic relationship.

The ascendance of Khan and Wu, two of the most important intellectuals in the recent progressive antitrust revival, signals a break with that past and hints that Biden is sympathetic to the left’s view that Obama’s laissez-faire policies helped engender the populist backlash that ended with DONALD TRUMP’S election.

Adding Khan to the FTC, a move that will likely be greeted with alarm by the tech industry, also suggests that the White House is already laying the groundwork for a second act that will include a big regulatory push once its early legislative agenda runs its course.

Watch that space.

Long Read of the Day

 The Consequences Of Radical Reform

Scott Alexander has been reading an intriguing NBER paper on the consequences of the French Revolution by Daron Acemoglu, Davide Cantoni, Simon Johnson and James A. Robinson that was published way back in 2009. In it, the authors argued that the Revolution had

a momentous impact on neighboring countries. The French Revolutionary armies during the 1790s and later under Napoleon invaded and controlled large parts of Europe. Together with invasion came various radical institutional changes. French invasion removed the legal and economic barriers that had protected the nobility, clergy, guilds, and urban oligarchies and established the principle of equality before the law. The evidence suggests that areas that were occupied by the French and that underwent radical institutional reform experienced more rapid urbanization and economic growth, especially after 1850. There is no evidence of a negative effect of French invasion.

Reading this paper has sparked a thoughtful and interesting essay by Scott Alexander. This is how it begins:

The thread that runs from Edmund Burke to James Scott and Seeing Like A State goes: systems that evolve organically are well-adapted to their purpose. Cultures, ancient traditions, and long-lasting institutions contain irreplaceable wisdom. If some reformer or technocrat who thinks he’s the smartest guy in the room sweeps them aside and replaces them with some clever theory he just came up with, he’ll make everything much worse. That’s why collective farming, Brasilia, and Robert Moses worked worse than ordinary people doing ordinary things.

An alternative thread runs through the French Revolution, social activism, and modern complaints about vetocracy. Its thesis: entrenched interests are constantly blocking necessary change. If only there were some centralized authority powerful enough to sweep them away and do all the changes we know we need, everything would be great. This was the vibe I got from Gabriel Over The White House (sorry, subscriber-only post), the movie exhorting FDR to become a fascist dictator. So many obviously good policies had built up behind the veto point that we needed a Great Man to come in, sweep them away, and satisfy the people’s cries for justice. Obviously at its worst this thread can lead to authoritarianism.

These threads don’t cleanly map to the modern left-right political spectrum…

In the end he comes to a rather tame conclusion: whether radical reform is good or bad depends on how intelligent and thoroughgoing it is. But sometimes, as Leonard Woolf (I think) once observed, the journey not the arrival matters — which is often the case with Scott Alexander.

Meghan and Harry Will Never Be This Interesting Again

As I observed yesterday, I don’t have a dog in this fight, so I’ve avoided all British media coverage of the spat between Harry and Meghan and the other Royals. But I thought this American perspective provided by Jack Shafer was interesting.

Haters of monarchies would have you regard “royal” families as marrow-sucking parasites on the public treasury. And they would be right. The Windsors being the exemplars of such parasitism, believe ancestry and divine endorsement gives them an automatic right to an opulent life and deference from commoners. We should probably give Meghan and Harry an attagirl and an attaboy for turning their backs on “The Firm,” the widely used nickname for the “royal” family, and striking out to earn their own keep through production deals. The taxpayers who funded Meghan and Harry’s lifestyle were victims. The media consumers who will partake of their films and podcast will be paying accomplices in the first season of The Liberation of Meghan and Harry.

But the media face through which the two will now encounter the world is not radically new for them. Instead of “the Firm” pulling the puppet strings on their bodies, they’ll do their own yanking as they switch from being human products of a company that markets their lives to the world to human products that they control. It’s just the same unscripted material moved to a new location. The biggest difference is how they’ve disintermediated the Windsors from profit participation and assumed complete image creation for themselves.

Shafer’s point is that if the escaping pair think that working for The Firm was bad, then they’re about to discover that working for the Netflix/Hollywood mob is just as bad.

In order to stay commercially relevant, they’ll have to produce great content for Netflix and Spotify before their novelty wears off. That’s no easy feat. They’ll be competing against the most brilliant filmmakers and podcasters in the world now, and conjuring content from nothing ain’t nothing. Not even Steven Spielberg can deliver what the public wants every time, and he’s the greatest mass entertainer of our times. Also, neither Meghan nor Harry have much experience in producing media. If not for their relationship with the “royals,” they couldn’t have gotten a meeting with a Netflix flunky, let alone a deal.


How the tech world pivoted on a dime

Pandemics accelerate history, says the historian Yuval Noah Harari. One minute we all worked in offices. The next day we were working from home (or at any rate those of us fortunate enough to be able to do so). But how was that possible?

The Register (Which God Preserve) is running a series of memoirs from tech-support staff who made it happen. Here’s a sample from today’s recollections:

On the other side of the world, Chris Moriarty also had a busy day after he was given four hours to move his 250-person business into a new office and get it ready to work from home.

The day started well for Moriarty and Flat Planet, the business process outsourcer he owns and runs in Manila, capital city of the Philippines. Work on the company’s new office had finished ahead of schedule and while the fortnight of overlapping leases would be busy with all the minutiae and mess of a move, the old and new offices were just 150m apart so the job promised to be orderly.

But on this day, 16 March 2020, Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte ordered four weeks of “enhanced community quarantine” that would prohibit residents leaving home for 28 days other than to buy food or seek medical attention. An accompanying curfew came into effect at sundown.

Four hours away.

”I called in my wife, maids, the builders from the new office,” Moriarty recalled. “We were all just sprinting up and down the street. We moved the server cupboard, the filing cabinets, hundreds of PCs. We did it in four hours, without any trucks or anything.”

See what I mean?

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