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Denmark has appointed an ambassador to Silicon Valley [a call for GOOD]

3 Sep

Silicon Valley, of course, is not a sovereign country. It is a loose collection of powerful tech companies in Northern California.

Adam Satariano, The World’s First Ambassador to the Tech Industry, NYTimes, September 3, 2019:

Casper Klynge, a career diplomat from Denmark, has worked in some of the world’s most turbulent places. He once spent 18 months embroiled in reconstruction efforts in Afghanistan. For two years, he led a crisis management mission in Kosovo.

Yet Mr. Klynge, 46, says his toughest foreign posting may be the one he has now: as the world’s first foreign ambassador to the technology industry.

In 2017, Denmark became the first nation to formally create a diplomatic post to represent its interests before companies such as Facebook and Google. After Denmark determined that tech behemoths now have as much power as many governments — if not more — Mr. Klynge was sent to Silicon Valley.

“What has the biggest impact on daily society? A country in southern Europe, or in Southeast Asia, or Latin America, or would it be the big technology platforms?” Mr. Klynge said in an interview last month at a cafe in central Copenhagen during an annual meeting of Denmark’s diplomatic corps. “Our values, our institutions, democracy, human rights, in my view, are being challenged right now because of the emergence of new technologies.”

He added, “These companies have moved from being companies with commercial interests to actually becoming de facto foreign policy actors.”

Note that after two years on the job he has”never met with Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook or Sundar Pichai of Google or Timothy D. Cook of Apple.” A bit further on: “Denmark is emblematic of the many small countries that are grappling with technology’s effects on their societies and are frustrated by an inability to meet with, let alone influence, the companies causing that disruption.”

This sounds like a job for Charlie Keil’s GOOD (Global Organization of Democracies), which is tilted toward the world’s smaller democracies.

See also, this post,  Tech Firms Are Not Sovereigns, Sept. 27, 2018. See as well this passage from The New World Order of Virtual Feudalism (scan down the page a bit), an article which I had originally ghosted for Abbe Mowshowitz:

A major consequence of multinational organization is that corporate interests no-longer coincide with the interests of a particular nation-state. The alignment invoked in the infamous assertion from the 1950s that “what’s good for General Motors is good for the nation” no longer obtains. General Motors’ good needs to be counted up in many nations and, for example, what’s good for a General Motors plant in Mexico may not be good for a General Motors workers living in the United States, who may in fact lose their jobs to that Mexican plant.

In the world of virtual feudalism more and more economic activity falls outside the jurisdiction of nation states.  […] The boundary between public and private organizations and institutions is dissolving. We are moving into a world of institutions of various sizes having overlapping and even conflicting jurisdictions and mandates, a world reminiscent of the feudal world where individuals negotiated their way through duties and powers emanating from a diffuse network of duchies, kingdoms, churches, guilds, towns, manors, and empires.


Is America too large? (Heck Yeah!)

13 Aug
Eli Dourado Wonders: Maybe America is Simply too Big (2016):

But I want to focus on something else. I can’t shake the idea that we’re way out of equilibrium in terms of optimal country size. If this idea is correct, then at least some of our problems could be the result of a mismatch between reality and the unexamined assumption that we all have to be in this together.

He goes on to summarize a classic paper on optimal country size, concluding:

…if economic integration prevails regardless of political integration—say, tariffs are low and shipping is cheap—then political integration doesn’t buy you much. Many of the other public goods that governments provide—law and order, social insurance, etc.—don’t really benefit from large populations beyond a certain point. If you scale from a million people to 100 million people, you aren’t really better off.

As a result, if economic integration prevails, the optimal country size is small, maybe even a city-state.

The number of independent nations in the world has been roughly tripled over the last century. As for the United States:

In his book American Nations, Colin Woodard argues that North America is actually composed of 11 distinct cultures, each dominant in different parts of the continent. Many of our internal political divisions—over gun control, the death penalty, abortion, the welfare state, immigration, and more—may actually reflect these cultural differences.


Given what we know about optimal country size, a monolithic America makes less sense today than it did a century ago. What made America into the superpower that it is today is its massive internal free trade area. Now that trade barriers have declined worldwide, this is less of an advantage than ever before. It’s not at all clear that this diminishing advantage outweighs the cost of our divisive politics based on unshared cultural assumptions.

All of which argues for a look at a pamphlet I edited, with some help from Charlie Keil, Thomas Naylor’s Paths to Peace: Small Is Necessary (Local Paths to Peace Today))

What happened to economics?

7 May
Eric Posner and Glen Weyl, “How Economists Became So Timid”, The Chronicle of Higher Education.
Self-styled American and European radicals, for example, helped end monarchy and expand the franchise. The free-labor ideology of European radicals and American Radical Republicans helped abolish serfdom and slavery and establish a new basis for industrial labor relations. The late 18th and 19th centuries also witnessed the liberal reformism of Jeremy Bentham, Smith, James and John Stuart Mill, and the Marquis de Condorcet; the socialist revolutionary ideologies of Pierre-Joseph Proudhon and Marx; the labor unionism of Beatrice and Sydney Webb; and, influential at the time but now mostly forgotten, the competitive common ownership ideology of Henry George and Léon Walras. This ideology shaped the Progressive movement in the United States, the “New Liberalism” of David Lloyd George in Britain, the radicalism of Georges Clemenceau in France, even the agenda of the Nationalist Chinese revolutionary leader Sun Yat-Sen. The Keynesian and welfare-state reforms of the early 20th century set the stage for the longest and most broadly shared period of growth in human history.
The upshot is that economics has played virtually no role in all the major political movements of the past half-century, including civil rights, feminism, anticolonialism, the rights of sexual minorities, gun rights, antiabortion politics, and “family values” debates. It has been completely unprepared for Trumpism and other varieties of populism, having failed to predict those developments just as it failed to predict the financial crisis of 2008. And, until very recently, it has shrugged at one of the most politically charged and morally troubling issues of our time — the rise in inequality.
Even the recent attempts of the field to live up to its heritage have fallen flat. Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century, while widely perceived as a successor to Marx’s Capital, ends by half-heartedly proposing a modest global tax on capital. Where is the modern Smith, Marx, George, or Keynes? Other fields have not stepped up to fill the void left by political economy’s collapse. Sociologists and political scientists largely eschew specific policy proposals. And political philosophers, while offering bold visions of ideal societies, usually avoid dirtying their hands with the details of feasible policy design.

The longue durée of human history is complicated

3 Mar
Conventional wisdom has it that over the course of, say, the last 50,000 years or so, human society evolved from small egalitarian bands of hunter-gatherers through a series of stages of ever larger and more unequal forms of social organization as we moved through the agricultural and then the industrial evolutions. We are thus stuck with inequality forever. David Graeber and David Wengrow challenge this in an important article in Eurozone, How to change the course of human history (at least, the part that’s already happened). Here’s their final paragraph:

The pieces are all there to create an entirely different world history. For the most part, we’re just too blinded by our prejudices to see the implications. For instance, almost everyone nowadays insists that participatory democracy, or social equality, can work in a small community or activist group, but cannot possibly ‘scale up’ to anything like a city, a region, or a nation-state. But the evidence before our eyes, if we choose to look at it, suggests the opposite. Egalitarian cities, even regional confederacies, are historically quite commonplace. Egalitarian families and households are not. Once the historical verdict is in, we will see that the most painful loss of human freedoms began at the small scale – the level of gender relations, age groups, and domestic servitude – the kind of relationships that contain at once the greatest intimacy and the deepest forms of structural violence. If we really want to understand how it first became acceptable for some to turn wealth into power, and for others to end up being told their needs and lives don’t count, it is here that we should look. Here too, we predict, is where the most difficult work of creating a free society will have to take place.

These paragraphs will give you a feel for their argument:

Why are these seasonal variations important? Because they reveal that from the very beginning, human beings were self-consciously experimenting with different social possibilities. Anthropologists describe societies of this sort as possessing a ‘double morphology’. Marcel Mauss, writing in the early twentieth century, observed that the circumpolar Inuit, ‘and likewise many other societies . . . have two social structures, one in summer and one in winter, and that in parallel they have two systems of law and religion’. In the summer months, Inuit dispersed into small patriarchal bands in pursuit of freshwater fish, caribou, and reindeer, each under the authority of a single male elder. Property was possessively marked and patriarchs exercised coercive, sometimes even tyrannical power over their kin. But in the long winter months, when seals and walrus flocked to the Arctic shore, another social structure entirely took over as Inuit gathered together to build great meeting houses of wood, whale-rib, and stone. Within them, the virtues of equality, altruism, and collective life prevailed; wealth was shared; husbands and wives exchanged partners under the aegis of Sedna, the Goddess of the Seals.

Another example were the indigenous hunter-gatherers of Canada’s Northwest Coast, for whom winter – not summer – was the time when society crystallised into its most unequal form, and spectacularly so. Plank-built palaces sprang to life along the coastlines of British Columbia, with hereditary nobles holding court over commoners and slaves, and hosting the great banquets known as potlatch. Yet these aristocratic courts broke apart for the summer work of the fishing season, reverting to smaller clan formations, still ranked, but with an entirely different and less formal structure. In this case, people actually adopted different names in summer and winter, literally becoming someone else, depending on the time of year.

Perhaps most striking, in terms of political reversals, were the seasonal practices of 19th-century tribal confederacies on the American Great Plains – sometime, or one-time farmers who had adopted a nomadic hunting life. In the late summer, small and highly mobile bands of Cheyenne and Lakota would congregate in large settlements to make logistical preparations for the buffalo hunt. At this most sensitive time of year they appointed a police force that exercised full coercive powers, including the right to imprison, whip, or fine any offender who endangered the proceedings. Yet as the anthropologist Robert Lowie observed, this ‘unequivocal authoritarianism’ operated on a strictly seasonal and temporary basis, giving way to more ‘anarchic’ forms of organisation once the hunting season – and the collective rituals that followed – were complete.

Scholarship does not always advance. Sometimes it slides backwards. A hundred years ago, most anthropologists understood that those who live mainly from wild resources were not, normally, restricted to tiny ‘bands.’ That idea is really a product of the 1960s, when Kalahari Bushmen and Mbuti Pygmies became the preferred image of primordial humanity for TV audiences and researchers alike. As a result we’ve seen a return of evolutionary stages, really not all that different from the tradition of the Scottish Enlightenment: this is what Fukuyama, for instance, is drawing on, when he writes of society evolving steadily from ‘bands’ to ‘tribes’ to ‘chiefdoms,’ then finally, the kind of complex and stratified ‘states’ we live in today – usually defined by their monopoly of ‘the legitimate use of coercive force.’ By this logic, however, the Cheyenne or Lakota would have had to be ‘evolving’ from bands directly to states roughly every November, and then ‘devolving’ back again come spring. Most anthropologists now recognise that these categories are hopelessly inadequate, yet nobody has proposed an alternative way of thinking about world history in the broadest terms.

MAGA: A conspiracy of oligarchs vs. the rest of us?

12 Jul

Just a quick take: We know that prior to becoming President Donald Trump was doing business in Russia. We now know that the Trump campaign – DJ Jr., Kushner, & Manafort – had a conversation with well-connected Russians about dirt on Hillary Clinton. We don’t yet know whether or not anything illegal has been done – expert opinion seems divided. But at the very least, it’s unseemly. Is this how to make American great again, collaborate with a nation that, not so long ago, was America’s fiercest rival?

But is this about nations, or just about the oligarchs and plutocrats that run them? We know that any self-respecting Russian oligarch is going to have an apartment in London, or New York, perhaps Singapore, or Dubai? The Chinese too? And folks on Jersey City, across the Hudson from Manhattan, have been getting exercised at son-in-law Jared’s sister dangling HB-5 visas before potential Chinese investors in their projects.

It’s looking like “Make America Great Again” is just the brand name under which a loose transnational gaggle of oligarchs manipulates politics in the USofA.

Meanwhile, I keep reading these articles about the waning of the nation-state as a vehicle for governance. The most recent of these talk about how states and cities in America are going around the federal government on climate change. That is to say, on this issue, they’ve decided to conduct their own foreign policy and foreign policy, we know, has traditionally be the prerogative of the nation-state. That’s why nation-states exist, to conduct foreign affairs.

What’s it all mean?

The cost disease, e.g. education and health care cost more, but teachers, doctors, and nurses don’t earn more

11 Feb

Scott Alexander, in a long post:

So, to summarize: in the past fifty years, education costs have doubled, college costs have dectupled [10 times], health insurance costs have dectupled, subway costs have at least dectupled, and housing costs have increased by about fifty percent. US health care costs about four times as much as equivalent health care in other First World countries; US subways cost about eight times as much as equivalent subways in other First World countries.

I worry that people don’t appreciate how weird this is. I didn’t appreciate it for a long time. I guess I just figured that Grandpa used to talk about how back in his day movie tickets only cost a nickel; that was just the way of the world. But all of the numbers above are inflation-adjusted. These things have dectupled in cost even after you adjust for movies costing a nickel in Grandpa’s day. They have really, genuinely dectupled in cost, no economic trickery involved.

And this is especially strange because we expect that improving technology and globalization ought to cut costs. In 1983, the first mobile phone cost $4,000 – about $10,000 in today’s dollars. It was also a gigantic piece of crap. Today you can get a much better phone for $100. This is the right and proper way of the universe. It’s why we fund scientists, and pay businesspeople the big bucks.

But things like college and health care have still had their prices dectuple. Patients can now schedule their appointments online; doctors can send prescriptions through the fax, pharmacies can keep track of medication histories on centralized computer systems that interface with the cloud, nurses get automatic reminders when they’re giving two drugs with a potential interaction, insurance companies accept payment through credit cards – and all of this costs ten times as much as it did in the days of punch cards and secretaries who did calculations by hand.


I don’t have a similar graph for subway workers, but come on. The overall pictures is that health care and education costs have managed to increase by ten times without a single cent of the gains going to teachers, doctors, or nurses. Indeed these professions seem to have lost ground salary-wise relative to others.

I also want to add some anecdote to these hard facts. My father is a doctor and my mother is a teacher, so I got to hear a lot about how these professions have changed over the past generation. It seems at least a little like the adjunct story, although without the clearly defined “professor vs. adjunct” dichotomy that makes it so easy to talk about. Doctors are really, really, really unhappy. […] Read these articles and they all say the same thing that all the doctors I know say – medicine used to be a well-respected, enjoyable profession where you could give patients good care and feel self-actualized. Now it kind of sucks.

Meanwhile, I also see articles like this piece from NPR saying teachers are experiencing historic stress levels and up to 50% say their job “isn’t worth it”. Teacher job satisfaction is at historic lows. And the veteran teachers I know say the same thing as the veteran doctors I know – their jobs used to be enjoyable and make them feel like they were making a difference; now they feel overworked, unappreciated, and trapped in mountains of paperwork.

And we don’t know why this is happening.

H/t Tyler Cowen.

Changing Shape of US Income Distribution

20 Dec


Peak Paper

22 Feb
Over at Crooked Timber John Quiggin has a post on peak paper:
In 2013, the world reached Peak Paper. World production and consumption of paper reached its maximum, flattened out, and is now falling. In fact, the peak in the traditional use of paper, for writing and printing, took place a few years earlier, but was offset for a while by continued growth in other uses, such as packaging and tissues.
China, by virtue of its size, rapid growth and middle-income status is the bellwether here; as China goes, so goes the world. Unsurprisingly in this light, China’s own peak year for paper use also occurred in 2013. Poorer countries, where universal literacy is only just arriving, are still increasing their use of paper, but even in these countries the peak is not far away.

Why does this matter? Because it means that we’re moving beyond the industrial mode of production and so must move beyond the ideas that go along with it, including the idea of perpetual growth:

Peak Paper points up the meaningless of measures of economic growth in an information economy. Consider first the ‘fixed proportions’ assumption that resource inputs, economic outputs and the value of those outputs grow, broadly speaking in parallel. Until the end of the 20th century, these assumptions worked reasonably well for paper, books and newspapers, and the information they transmitted. The volume of information grew somewhat more rapidly than the economy as a whole, but not so rapidly as to undermine the notion of an aggregate rate of economic growth. … In the 21st century, these relationships have broken down. On the one hand, as we have already seen, the production of consumption and paper has slowed and declined. On the other hand, there has been an explosion in the production and distribution of information of all kinds.

McWhorter on Antiracism as Religion, and Beyond

28 Jul

Yesterday I published a post at 3 Quarks Daily in which I quoted a July 21 remarks between John McWhorter and Glenn Loury to the effect that antiracism has become something like a religion. In particular, they focused on the writing of Ta-Nehisi Coates. McWhorter has now published a piece in The Daily Beast, Antiracism, Our Flawed New Religion.

Religion vs. Practical Action

In view of that piece I’d like to continue the discussion. First, here’s a bit of the Loury/McWhorter discussion I didn’t quote. This is McWhorter at about 35 minutes in:

What we’re talking about as not worthy, what you see as condescending, David Brookes pretending to think that he has no right to question something that somebody wrote just because they’re black and they have a way with a pen, none of that has anything to do with being concerned with black uplift. And black uplift has to take place separately from that. It has nothing to do with Charles Blow and his artful prose. So all those people are going to be doing the Bible. That’s what they’re doing, I think of it these days. It’s religion and I can’t say it’s a terrible thing, but it will have nothing to do with changing poor black people’s lives.

So, the religion of antiracism is one thing while political and social action that will improve black lives is something different. One of McWhorter’s concerns, obviously enough, is that the religion will distract attention and action away from concrete action.

Here’s a passage from McWhorter’s new article:

Coates is “revered,” as New York magazine aptly puts it, as someone gifted at phrasing, repeating, and crafting artful variations upon points that are considered crucial—that is, scripture. Specifically, Coates is celebrated as the writer who most aptly expresses the scripture that America’s past was built on racism and that racism still permeates the national fabric.

The very fact that white America today cherishes this religion is evidence that Coates’s particular pessimism about America and race is excessive.
This became especially clear last year with the rapturous reception of Coates’s essay, “The Case for Reparations.” It was beautifully written, of course, but the almost tearfully ardent praise the piece received was about more than composition. The idea was that the piece was important, weighty, big news. But let’s face it—no one, including Coates himself, I presume, has any hope that our current Congress is about to give reparations for slavery to black people in any significant way. Plus, reparations had been widely discussed, and ultimately put aside, as recently as 15 years ago in the wake of Randall Robinson’s The Debt. Yet Coates’s article was discussed almost as if he were bringing up reparations as a new topic.

Here is a passage from Coates’ piece that gives some idea of what he’s looking for:

A crime that implicates the entire American people deserves its hearing in the legislative body that represents them.

John Conyers’s HR 40 is the vehicle for that hearing. No one can know what would come out of such a debate. Perhaps no number can fully capture the multi-century plunder of black people in America. Perhaps the number is so large that it can’t be imagined, let alone calculated and dispensed. But I believe that wrestling publicly with these questions matters as much as—if not more than—the specific answers that might be produced. An America that asks what it owes its most vulnerable citizens is improved and humane. An America that looks away is ignoring not just the sins of the past but the sins of the present and the certain sins of the future. More important than any single check cut to any African American, the payment of reparations would represent America’s maturation out of the childhood myth of its innocence into a wisdom worthy of its founders.

Coates had earlier noted that Conyers has been introducing his reparations bill, HR 40, annually for the last quarter century and had gotten nowhere with it, and all it called for was to study the issue. That is, all that Coates is calling for is a grand ‘conversation on race’ inscribed within the conditions of HR 40, whatever they may be. It is not a call to action. It is, to use a word that Loury had introduced into his conversation with McWhorter, an expressive act.

McWhorter continues:

Its audience sought not counsel, but proclamation. Coates does not write with this formal intention, but for his readers, he is a preacher. A.O. Scott perfectly demonstrates Coates’s now clerical role in our discourse in saying that his new book is “essential, like water or air”—this is the kind of thing one formerly said of the Greatest Story Ever Told.

Continue reading

@3QD: Obama’s Pinckney Eulogy, Ta-Nehisi Coates as “Priest”, Laudato Si’

27 Jul

The topic: The place of religious discourse in civic life.

Initially prompted by some remarks by Glenn Loury and John McWhorter from June 29, I took a close look at Obama’s eulogy for Rev. Clementa Pinckney and was stunned. The particular question that attracted my attention was the issue of Obama’s ‘authenticity’ as he enacted the role of a black preacher and transformed the eulogy into a sermon on race relations in the USA. So I transcribed part of their conversation and started thinking.

And I thought that I really ought to write a blog post addressing the authenticity issue. I ended up writing four posts. I devoted two posts to a close analysis of Obama’s eulogy, discovering – to my delight and surprise – that is exhibited ring-composition, one of my particular interests. Another post consists of transcribed conversation, the Loury-McWhorter conversation that got me started, a conversation between Pres. Obama and Marc Maron, and one between Ike Turner and Sam Phillips (the producer who discovered Elvis Presley). And my final post took up the authenticity issue, with a look into the past through Duke Ellington, Elvis Presley, and 19th Century camp meetings, and concluding with some remarks on the quasi-political quasi-religious nature of the President’s remarks.

As I was working into, through, and beyond that last post I began to think of the Pope’s recent encyclical, Laudo Si’, a religious document with tremendous political implications. That put it in the same place, in my mind, that I had just created for Obama’s eulogy. And these two statements came within a month of one another.

Is something afoot, I wondered, something between and around religion and politics?

As I was thinking about that, and thinking about what I’d write for my up-coming 3 Quarks Daily column, I listened to another Loury-McWhorter discussion, this one was about Ta-Nehisi Coates as a quasi-religious figure. I’ve read a few pieces by Coates, but nothing in the last year or so. But their remarks struck me as being reasonable. What’s more, it seems to me that they were defining this liminal space where we find Obama’s eulogy and Laudato Si’.

And that became my 3QD column, where I place those documents in evidence for a discussion of the role of religious discourse in public life. You can find that colunn HERE. Below the asterisks I place my transcription of Loury and McWhorter on Ta-Nehisi Coates.

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Here’s the conversation: Continue reading