April 2019


 The Philosopher Redefining Equality: Elizabeth Anderson thinks we’ve misunderstood the basis of a free and fair society.

  • Caveat: this is a New Yorker article, i.e. long, but great, related, link (Aeon: A belief in meritocracy is not only false: it’s bad for you)

Much social thought is rooted in the idea of a conflict between the two. If individuals exercise freedoms, conservatives like to say, some inequalities will naturally result. Those on the left basically agree—and thus allow constraints on personal freedom in order to reduce inequality. The philosopher Isaiah Berlin called the opposition between equality and freedom an “intrinsic, irremovable element in human life.” It is our fate as a society, he believed, to haggle toward a balance between them.

To be truly free, in Anderson’s assessment, members of a society had to be able to function as human beings (requiring food, shelter, medical care), to participate in production (education, fair-value pay, entrepreneurial opportunity), to execute their role as citizens (freedom to speak and to vote), and to move through civil society (parks, restaurants, workplaces, markets, and all the rest).

Anderson’s democratic model shifted the remit of egalitarianism from the idea of equalizing wealth to the idea that people should be equally free, regardless of their differences. A society in which everyone had the same material benefits could still be unequal, in this crucial sense; democratic equality, being predicated on equal respect, wasn’t something you could simply tax into existence.

Philosophers have often assumed that pluralistic value reflects human fuzziness—we’re loose, we’re confused, and we mix rational thought with sentimental responses. Anderson proposed that, actually, pluralism of value wasn’t the fuzz but the thing itself. She offered an “expressive” theory: in her view, each person’s values could be various because they were socially expressed, and thus shaped by the range of contexts and relationships at play in a life. Instead of positing value as a basic, abstract quality across society (the way “utility” functioned for economists), she saw value as something determined by the details of an individual’s history. Like her idea of relational equality, this model resisted the temptation to flatten human variety toward a unifying standard. In doing so, it helped expand the realm of free and reasoned economic choice.

The challenge of pluralism is the challenge of modern society: maintaining equality amid difference in a culture given to constant and unpredictable change. It is the fashion in America these days to define political virtue by position. Richard is on the side of history, we might say, because he’s to the left of Irma on this issue and slightly to the right of Marco on that one. Anderson would resist this way (political virtue by position) of thinking, not least because it calls for intellectual convergence. It’s anti-pluralistic and tribalist. It celebrates ideology; it presumes that certain models have absolute, not situational, value. Rather than fighting for the ascendancy of certain positions, Anderson suggests, citizens should fight to bolster healthy institutions and systems—those which insure that all views and experiences will be heard. Today’s righteous projects, after all, will inevitably seem fatuous and blinkered from the vantage of another age

Today, people still try to use, variously, both Smith’s and Marx’s tools on a different, postindustrial world:

“Images of free market society that made sense prior to the Industrial Revolution continue to circulate today as ideals, blind to the gross mismatch between the background social assumptions reigning in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and today’s institutional realities. We are told that our choice is between free markets and state control, when most adults live their working lives under a third thing entirely: private government.”

What else could you call the modern workplace, where superiors can issue changing orders, control attire, surveil correspondence, demand medical testing, define schedules, and monitor communication, such as social-media posts? The decisions that a company makes, like the installation of cubicles in the bank in Harvard Square, are presented as none of its employees’ business (hence “private”). Defenders of this state of affairs often counter that people negotiate their salaries and can always leave. Anderson notes that low-level workers can rarely wrangle raises, and that real-world constraints eliminate exit power. (Workers are sometimes bound by non-compete agreements, and usually cannot get unemployment insurance if they quit.) It was as if relational equality could be suspended between nine and five—a habit that, inevitably, affects life beyond work.


The First Rule of Microsoft Excel—Don’t Tell Anyone You’re Good at It

“If someone tells you that they ‘just have a few Excel sheets’ that they want help with, run the other way,” tweeted 32-year-old statistician Andrew Althouse. “Also, you may want to give them a fake phone number, possibly a fake name. It may be worth faking your own death, in extreme circumstances.”

  • Some Reddit horror stories, link, that just go to show how scarily inefficient much of today’s work is still being done! Which doesn’t portend well for the future re: automation

  • Also, Excel’s team takes votes from the community on features — awesome, link; and their team often does AMAs, link, (I counted 2 women in the room of 17)

Tesla bought a battery company, and it’s more about cash flow than batteries

Ultracapacitors are, like batteries, energy-storage devices. The difference between the two is best understood with an analogy. Because batteries store energy in electrochemical form, it takes time to charge and discharge them. It’s like the time it takes for a dam to fill with rain during the year, and then slowly drain as it turns turbines to generate electricity. Ultracapacitors, on the other hand, store energy in electrostatic form, which means they can charge and discharge rapidly. This is like routinely opening the floodgates in a dam as it rapidly refills with torrential rain.

The Creeping Capitalist Takeover of Higher Education

Selecting a college is one of the most high-stakes financial decisions a person will ever make, right up there with buying a house. And yet every year, millions of people do it on the basis of shockingly little information. College rankings are notoriously unscientific. There’s no form of independent quality control, since every school decides for itself what students need to do in order to pass courses. Accreditors assess the administrative practices of schools, but they are indirectly funded by colleges themselves. And the biggest financier of higher learning, the federal government, can’t force a school to reduce tuition if it believes students are being overcharged. What all of this means is that colleges essentially approve one another to be eligible for government money.

Nor can students expect “the market” to help them figure it out. Universities aren’t like restaurants that rely on repeat customers: pretty much nobody gets two bachelor’s degrees. If you choose the wrong place, as many students do, it’s not easy to signal your dissatisfaction by transferring to a competitor. Besides, every year, colleges are practically guaranteed a fresh supply of high school graduates and adults looking for new skills. The result is a profiteer’s paradise: millions of highly motivated, naive, overwhelmed consumers loaded up with armfuls of government money.

There are two main reasons most online degrees are so expensive. The first is that middlemen like 2U spend enormous sums on marketing, a cost that is then passed on to the student. In materials it provides to investors, 2U helpfully estimates what happens to every $100 in revenue for a typical program that's not being launched or expanded. Approximately $15 is spent on actual teaching. Developing and administering the courses costs around $23. Marketing and sales eats up $19. And the cost of buying ad words and search terms on Facebook and Google keeps on rising, as OPMs compete with each other and with colleges running their own online programs.

What is Amazon

Walmart can be thought of as a bounded search for the optimal selection, inventory, and pricing of SKUs that a local market could support. It was bound, or constrained, by the characteristics of the local economy, and so each Walmart location was a direct reflection of the local market dynamics. The immensely difficult job of the local management team was to predict and implement the optimal mix that could theoretically have been found if every possible permutation were tested by the local economy. Undershooting or overshooting – that is, having too few or many SKUs, or too little or much inventory – would be a costly mistake. By the same token, higher-level managers were responsible for estimating the optimal size and location of the building itself, and for choosing the best associates to manage it, and so on. Each level of management, then, was tasked with managing their own level of the algorithm.

Bezos, in other words, wanted to build an unbounded Walmart. By removing the constraint of geography – and therefore the local economy – and by adding search functionality, the new formula became simpler: the more SKUs it added, the more items would be discovered by customers; the more items that customers discovered, the more items they would buy. In this world of infinite shelf space, it wasn’t the quality of the selection that mattered – it was pure quantity. And with this insight, Amazon did not need to be nearly as good – let alone better – than Walmart at Walmart’s masterful game of vendor and SKU selection. Amazon just needed to be faster at aggregating SKUs – and therefore faster at onboarding vendors.

To make sense of what started to happen after Amazon rolled out Marketplace, you have to understand that things get really weird when you run an unbounded search at internet-scale. When you remove “normal” constraints imposed by the physical world, the scale can get so massive that all of the normal approaches start to break down.

So, what is Amazon? It started as an unbound Walmart, an algorithm for running an unbound search for global optima in the world of physical products. It became a platform for adapting that algorithm to any opportunity for customer-centric value creation that it encountered. If it devises a way to keep its incentive structures intact as it exposes itself through its ever-expanding external interfaces, it – or its various split-off subsidiaries – will dominate the economy for a generation. And if not, it’ll be just another company that seemed unstoppable until it wasn’t.

Coders’ Primal Urge to Kill Inefficiency—Everywhere

Coders might have different backgrounds and political opinions, but nearly every one I’ve ever met found deep, almost soulful pleasure in taking something inefficient—even just a little bit slow—and tightening it up a notch. Removing the friction from a system is an aesthetic joy; coders’ eyes blaze when they talk about making something run faster or how they eliminated some bothersome human effort from a process.

“State Capture”: How the Gupta Brothers Hijacked South Africa Using Bribes Instead of Bullets

What the Guptas pulled off in South Africa has been extensively documented: the backroom deals, the rigged contracts, the wholesale plunder of national resources. The brothers, who declined to comment for this story, have denied all the accusations against them, and have yet to face charges. But the global arc of the tale—from a provincial town in India to the corporate boardrooms of London and New York—offers a case study in a new, systemic form of graft known as “state capture.” This was a modern-day coup d’état, waged with bribery instead of bullets. It demonstrates how an entire country can fall to foreign influences without a single shot being fired—especially when that country is ruled by a divisive president who is skilled at fueling racial resentments, willing to fire his own intelligence chiefs to protect his business interests, and eager to use his elected position to enrich himself with unsavory investors. 

The Guptas, who had been unknown back in India, enjoyed hobnobbing with the elites. They became famous in Johannesburg for inviting politicians to parties at their large, one-acre compound in the tony neighborhood of Saxonwold, and for entertaining the Indian and South African cricket teams after matches. (They also began to sponsor cricket stadiums.) The social investments paid off: before long, the Guptas befriended the man who would be most responsible for wrecking the post-apartheid dream of South Africa—Jacob Zuma.

By the time the Guptas had met him, in 2002, Zuma was deputy president of South Africa. A “conservative traditionalist,” according to one former official, Zuma acquired five wives (in addition to an ex-wife) and has 23 kids. He also lived beyond his means, writing dud checks and refusing to pay his taxes. Strapped for cash, he received interest-free loans from Schabir Shaik, a South African Indian businessman, who engineered an annual bribe for Zuma from a French arms company. In 2005, Shaik was found guilty of having a corrupt relationship with Zuma and was sentenced to 15 years in prison. Zuma, facing corruption charges of his own, was forced out of office.

Then, in a revelation that seemed to doom any chance of a political comeback, the daughter of an A.N.C. comrade came forward and accused Zuma of raping her in the guest room of his home. She was 31 and an H.I.V.-positive AIDS activist; he was 63. Never one to shy away from boasting about his libido, Zuma maintained that the sex was consensual and that the woman had worn a colorful traditional wrap—an obvious invitation to sex. “You cannot just leave a woman if she is already at that state,” he testified. He also insisted that he had showered after he had sex with her, to mitigate the chance of contracting AIDS—a comment that made him an international laughingstock. But Zuma survived by painting himself as the victim of a political conspiracy. His supporters swarmed the courthouse with signs proclaiming, BURN THE BITCH and 100% ZULU BOY, and in 2006 the judge acquitted him on all charges. That following year, tapping into an early surge of the populist forces that would soon consume the world, Zuma trounced the neoliberal Mbeki to become head of the A.N.C. In 2009, with the corruption charges against him thrown out on a technicality, Zuma was elected president of South Africa.

Ajay, now 53, sported the diamond ring his father had once worn. Rough-hewn and imposing, with a permanent swath of stubble, he was the family patriarch and the political brain of the operation. Atul, 50, oversaw outreach to corrupt government officials, while Tony, 46, served as the family’s gruff business negotiator.

From the moment Zuma was elected president, the Guptas began to plunder the South African government on an unprecedented scale. It was the perfect arrangement: Zuma did not have to be present in the room, or even included on e-mails, while the Guptas cut deals and moved money in and out of the country. Ajay, one government whistle-blower later recounted, would lounge on a sofa during meetings with his shoes off, wearing a T-shirt and gray track pants, looking like a swami who expected people to “kiss his feet” as he brainstormed ways to bribe officials. The Guptas had taken the model of their father’s fair-price shop and exaggerated it to fit the modern economy.

The Guptas’ brazenness was becoming obvious in government circles. In 2011, to shield the brothers from investigation, Zuma fired the chiefs of all three intelligence agencies and replaced them with loyalists

Then, on October 23, 2015, the Guptas tried to bribe the wrong man.

On that day, a balmy Friday, Mcebisi Jonas, the country’s deputy finance minister, was invited to a hotel to discuss business with the president’s son Duduzane. Instead, Duduzane drove him to the Gupta compound. There, Jonas later testified, he met with one of the brothers, whom he believed to be Ajay. Ajay told him that the “old man”—President Zuma—seemed to like him. The family, he added, wanted to see whether Jonas was someone who “can work with us.”

“You must understand that we are in control of everything,” Ajay said. “The old man will do anything we tell him to do.”

The deal on offer, Jonas recounted in his testimony, was as simple as it was enticing. Zuma would appoint Jonas as the nation’s finance minister. The Guptas, in turn, would pay Jonas $45 million to purge treasury officials who opposed the deal to build Russian-run nuclear energy plants that would operate on fuel supplied by the Gupta uranium mine.

Jonas, a soft-spoken man with a neat white goatee and a tie that always seems on the verge of coming undone, was outraged. When he got up to leave, Ajay tried sweetening the deal. If Jonas was willing to cooperate, Ajay said, he would deposit money in an account of his choosing—in South Africa or Dubai. In fact, he could give him $45,000 on the spot. “Do you have a bag?” he asked Jonas. “Or can I give you something to put it in?” When Jonas again refused, Ajay followed him to the door. If he told anyone about the meeting, Ajay warned, the Guptas would have him killed. (In a sworn affidavit, Ajay insisted that he was not present at the meeting, which he calls an “intentional fabrication to implicate me in alleged wrongdoing in which I played no part.”)