As Orwell noted in 1984: “Who controls the past controls the future; who controls the present controls the past.” He was speaking, of course, about control of written history, of what we know to have happened — and thereby how we allocate our political support. It is not a small matter if the company that is coming to be the nation’s most significant source of news skews that news toward its own political preferences. In fact, it’s just a tiny bit chilling. Government censorship is, of course, terrible. But censorship by a small group of unelected young people is not all that much more appealing.
This problem existed already on another scale. The socioeconomic, racial and political homogeneity of the media is a problem, one that I have written about before. That said, those media were operating in a competitive landscape, and no one outlet really had all that much market power. In each medium there were outlets of different sorts of political leanings, and more of them with the rise of the Internet.
Facebook, on the other hand, dominates all other social media outlets for news to an extent that no print outlet ever dominated the American landscape. The only arguable parallel is the big television networks from the 1950s to the 1980s, and at least there were three of them, rather than one. Besides, for most of that time they operated under the Fairness Doctrine — in other words, under heavy-handed government interference to limit their power to shape the national debate.
The greater danger is that liberals will end up falling back on an argument that is gaining more and more currency on the left: that this biasing of information is not merely an unfortunately insoluble problem, or so minor that it doesn’t make much difference in our politics, but that it is actually an affirmative good. These are the people who embrace Orwell’s dictum and say: “Yes, absolutely, the left should have control over what people are allowed to hear and know, because that’s how we’re going to build a better future.” The first argument may be unsatisfying. But the second is … downright Orwellian.
Megan McArdle, “Facebook Dislikes Conservatives, and That’s OK”, Bloomberg View, 2016-05-11.
May 30, 2016
May 21, 2016
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April 23, 2016
December 20, 2015
October 10, 2015
May 29, 2015
Silicon Valley is an American success story. At a time of supposed American decline, a gifted group of young entrepreneurs invented, merchandized, and institutionalized everything from smartphones and eBay to Google and Facebook. The collective genius within a small corridor from San Francisco to Stanford University somehow put hand-held electronics into over a billion households worldwide — and hundreds of billions of dollars in profits rolled into Northern California, and America at large.
Stranger yet, Silicon Valley excelled at 1950s-style profit-driven capitalism while projecting the image of hip and cool. The result is a bizarre 21st-century 1-percenter culture of $1,000-a-square-foot homes, $100,000 BMWs, and $500 loafers coexisting with left-wing politics and trendy pop culture. Silicon Valley valiantly tries to square the circle of driving a Mercedes or flying in a Gulfstream while lambasting those who produce its fuel.
But the paradox finally has reached its logically absurd end. In medieval times, rich sinners sought to save their souls by buying indulgences to wash away their sins. In the updated version, Silicon Valley crony capitalists and wheeler-dealers buy exemption for their conspicuous consumption with loud manifestations of cool left-wing politics.
Victor Davis Hanson, “The Valley of the Shadow: How mansion-dwelling, carbon-spewing cutthroat capitalists can still be politically correct”, National Review, 2014-07-22.
April 16, 2015
Tim Worstall on how our traditional economic measurements are less and less accurate for the modern economic picture:
… in the developed countries there’s a problem which seems to me obvious (and Brad Delong has even said that I’m right here which is nice). Which is that we’re just not measuring the output of the digital economy correctly. For much of that output is not in fact priced: what Delong has called Andreessenian goods (and Marc Andreessen himself calls Mokyrian). For example, we take Google’s addition to the economy to be the value of advertising that Google sells, not the value in use of the Google search engine. Similarly, Facebook is valued at its advertising sales, not whatever value people gain from being part of a social network of 1.3 billion people. In the traditional economy that consumer surplus can be roughly taken to be twice the sales value of the goods. For these Andreessenian goods the consumer surplus could be 20 times (Delong) or even 100 times (my own, very controversial and back of envelope calculations) that sales value.
We are therefore, in my view, grossly underestimating output. And since we measure productivity as the residual of output and resources used to create it we’re therefore also grossly underestimating productivity growth. We’re in error by using measurements of the older, physical, economy as our metric for the newer, digital, one.
In short, I simply don’t agree that growth is as slow as we are measuring it to be. Thus any predictions that rely upon taking our current “low” rate of growth as being a starting point must, logically, be wrong. And that also means that all the policy prescriptions that flow from such an analysis, that we must spend more on infrastructure, education, government support for innovation, must also be wrong.
January 4, 2015
In the Washington Post, Lindsey Kaufman recounts her experience when her workplace changed to the “open-office model”:
A year ago, my boss announced that our large New York ad agency would be moving to an open office. After nine years as a senior writer, I was forced to trade in my private office for a seat at a long, shared table. It felt like my boss had ripped off my clothes and left me standing in my skivvies.
Our new, modern Tribeca office was beautifully airy, and yet remarkably oppressive. Nothing was private. On the first day, I took my seat at the table assigned to our creative department, next to a nice woman who I suspect was an air horn in a former life. All day, there was constant shuffling, yelling, and laughing, along with loud music piped through a PA system. As an excessive water drinker, I feared my co-workers were tallying my frequent bathroom trips. At day’s end, I bid adieu to the 12 pairs of eyes I felt judging my 5:04 p.m. departure time. I beelined to the Beats store to purchase their best noise-cancelling headphones in an unmistakably visible neon blue.
Despite its obvious problems, the open-office model has continued to encroach on workers across the country. Now, about 70 percent of U.S. offices have no or low partitions, according to the International Facility Management Association. Silicon Valley has been the leader in bringing down the dividers. Google, Yahoo, eBay, Goldman Sachs and American Express are all adherents. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg enlisted famed architect Frank Gehry to design the largest open floor plan in the world, housing nearly 3,000 engineers. And as a businessman, Michael Bloomberg was an early adopter of the open-space trend, saying it promoted transparency and fairness. He famously carried the model into city hall when he became mayor of New York, making “the Bullpen” a symbol of open communication and accessibility to the city’s chief.
These new floor plans are ideal for maximizing a company’s space while minimizing costs. Bosses love the ability to keep a closer eye on their employees, ensuring clandestine porn-watching, constant social media-browsing and unlimited personal cellphone use isn’t occupying billing hours. But employers are getting a false sense of improved productivity. A 2013 study found that many workers in open offices are frustrated by distractions that lead to poorer work performance. Nearly half of the surveyed workers in open offices said the lack of sound privacy was a significant problem for them and more than 30 percent complained about the lack of visual privacy. Meanwhile, “ease of interaction” with colleagues — the problem that open offices profess to fix — was cited as a problem by fewer than 10 percent of workers in any type of office setting. In fact, those with private offices were least likely to identify their ability to communicate with colleagues as an issue. In a previous study, researchers concluded that “the loss of productivity due to noise distraction … was doubled in open-plan offices compared to private offices.”
I work in the software industry and it’s been nearly 20 years since I last had a private office. Every company I’ve worked for since then has either consciously been moving in the open office direction, or unwilling to spend money to partition open space in whatever office space they had. Sometimes, I even get nostalgic for cube farms…
October 28, 2014
Tim Worstall explains why it’s not a scandal that Facebook doesn’t pay more taxes in the UK:
In fact, it’s actually rather a good idea that Facebook isn’t paying UK corporation tax. For the standard economic finding (also known as optimal taxation theory) is that we shouldn’t be taxing corporations at all. Thus, as a matter of public policy we should be abolishing this tax: and also perhaps applauding those companies that take it upon themselves to do what the politicians seem not to have the courage to do, make sure that corporations aren’t paying tax.
That isn’t how most of the press sees it, of course
That’s an extremely bad piece of reporting actually, for of course Facebook UK did not have advertising revenue of £371 million last year: Facebook Ireland had advertising revenue of that amount from customers in the UK that year. And that’s something rather different: that revenue will be taxed under whatever system Ireland has in place to tax it. And this is the way that the European Union system of corporate taxation is supposed to work. Any company, based in any one of the 28 member countries, can sell entirely without hindrance into all other 27 countries. And the profits from their doing so will be taxed wherever the brass plate announcing the HQ of that company is within the EU. This really is how it was deliberately designed, how it was deliberately set up: it is public policy that it should be this way.
We could also note a few more things here. The UK company itself made a loss and that loss was because they made substantial grants of restricted stock units to the employees. And under the UK system those RSU grants are taxed as income, in full, at the moment of their being granted. Which will mean, given those average wages, at 45% or so. And we should all be able to realise that a 45% tax rate is rather higher than the 24% corporation tax rate. The total tax rate on the series of transactions is thus very much higher than if Facebook has kept its employees as paupers and just kept the profits for themselves. Further, those complaining about the tax bill tend to be those from the left side of the political aisle: which is also where we find those who insist that workers should be earning the full amount of their value to the company which is what seems to be happening here.
August 16, 2014
July 15, 2014
In Forbes, Tim Worstall ignores the slogans to follow the money in the Net Neutrality argument:
The FCC is having a busy time of it as their cogitations into the rules about net neutrality become the second most commented upon in the organisation’s history (second only to Janet Jackson’s nip-slip which gives us a good idea of the priorities of the citizenry). The various internet content giants, the Googles, Facebooks and so on of this world, are arguing very loudly that strict net neutrality should be the standard. We could, of course attribute this to all in those organisations being fully up with the hippy dippy idea that information just wants to be free. Apart from the obvious point that Zuckerberg, for one, is a little too young to have absorbed that along with the patchouli oil we’d probably do better to examine the underlying economics of what’s going on to work out why people are taking the positions they are.
Boiling “net neutrality” down to its essence the argument is about whether the people who own the connections to the customer, the broadband and mobile airtime providers, can treat different internet traffic differently. Should we force them to be neutral (thus the “neutrality” part) and treat all traffic exactly the same? Or should they be allowed to speed up some traffic, slow down other, in order to prioritise certain services over others?
We can (and many do) argue that we the consumers are paying for this bandwidth so it’s up to us to decide and we might well decide that they cannot. Others might (and they do) argue that certain services require very much more of that bandwidth than others, further, require a much higher level of service, and it would be economically efficient to charge for that greater volume and quality. For example, none of us would mind all that much if there was a random second or two delay in the arrival of a gmail message but we’d be very annoyed if there were random such delays in the arrival of a YouTube packet. Netflix would be almost unusable if streaming were subject to such delays. So it might indeed make sense to prioritise such traffic and slow down other to make room for it.
You can balance these arguments as you wish: there’s not really a “correct” answer to this, it’s a matter of opinion. But why are the content giants all arguing for net neutrality? What’s their reasoning?
As you’d expect, it all comes down to the money. Who pays more for what under a truly “neutral” model and who pays more under other models. The big players want to funnel off as much of the available profit to themselves as possible, while others would prefer the big players reduced to the status of regulated water company: carrying all traffic at the same rate (which then allows the profits to go to other players).