Alex Soojung-Kim Pang, Ph.D.

I study people, technology, and the worlds they make

Category: Current Affairs (page 1 of 26)

Roger Cohen and Michael Lewis on deconstructing the administrative state

Washington Monument and Capitol

Two pieces caught my eye today about the current state of the government, and how the administration, when it’s not walking away from its latest rage-induced self-harm, is doing real damage to our institutions and the expertise they contain.

First, in the New York Times, Roger Cohen writes about “The Desperation of Our Diplomats:”

An American jewel is at stake, a place where honorable patriots take an oath to the Constitution — that is to say, to the rule of law, representative governance and the democratic processes that, with conspicuous failings but equally conspicuous bravery, United States diplomats have sought to extend across the world. They have done so in the belief that humanity, in the long run, will benefit from freedom. Since 1945, liberty has extended its reach. But now, at a time of growing great-power rivalry, a diminished State Department leaves a vacuum Russia and China will fill.

Second, Vanity Fair has a long piece by Michael Lewis about what’s happening to the Department of Energy under Rick Perry, who seemed surprised to discover that the DOE mainly does stuff with nuclear weapons, not oil exploration:

Donald Trump’s secretary of energy, Rick Perry, once campaigned to abolish the $30 billion agency that he now runs, which oversees everything from our nuclear arsenal to the electrical grid. The department’s budget is now on the chopping block. But does anyone in the White House really understand what the Department of Energy actually does? And what a horrible risk it would be to ignore its extraordinary, life-or-death responsibilities?

The piece makes a couple things really clear. DOE deals with some incredibly hard and technically complicated issues, and has attracted people competent to deal with them– but the current administration seems to barely care about the world’s nuclear problems (except for North Korea, which they want to outsource to China, since we’ve outsourced so much else to them). Second, there are big problems that have traditionally been hard for anyone to get a grasp on, that the administration is likely to ignore or make worse.

I’ve long liked Michael Lewis, and thought his reporting on the aftermath of the financial crisis was one of the only good things to come from the meltdown. So I’m a little worried that someone who’s so good about writing about catastrophes caused by a mix of greed, hubris, self-interested short-sightedness, that play out in a way to does virtually no harm to those who created it but great harm to everyone else, is now writing about the state of the federal government.

Then again, maybe it’ll be Moneyball Michael Lewis writing, and it’ll turn into an uplifting story about how a bunch of rebels and misfits changed the game. But I doubt it.

“To get into elite colleges, one must train for standardized tests with the intensity of an athlete”

Dylan Hernandez has an excellent piece in the New York Times about class and the SATs. Hernandez grew up in Flint, Michigan, in a working-class family, and talks about spending time in a summer program at Phillips Exeter.

His classmates that summer were in the main from families that were far better-off, and were “impossibly sporty, charming and intelligent, with perfect smiles and impeccably curated Instagram profiles,” as well as “truly interesting people.” But he was surprised to find that they were also serious SAT grinds:

The majority of low- and middle-income 11th graders I know in Michigan didn’t even sit for the preliminary exams. Most took the SAT cold. Few were privy to the upper-middle-class secret I discovered that summer: To get into elite colleges, one must train for standardized tests with the intensity of an athlete….

Don’t get me wrong. My newfound friends worked extremely hard, but they also seemed to have access to a formula for success that had been kept from the rest of us. It just wasn’t something our overworked guidance counselors could teach.

As a result, all the drilling they did for an exam that is supposed to be an equalizer in ranking students according to raw test-taking skills was only widening the American achievement gap.

This seems to me a pretty accurate reflection of the way advantage and merit work in America today: most kids from advantaged backgrounds work hard to leverage the benefits of their upbringing; but they still enjoy those advantages.

“Alabama senate votes to allow church to form own police force”

I suppose the most charitable way to spin this is to note that Birmingham does have a history of church bombings…

Alabama senate votes to allow church to form own police force

Lawmakers on Tuesday voted 24-4 to allow Briarwood Presbyterian church in Birmingham to establish a law enforcement department.

The church says it needs its own police officers to keep its school as well as its more than 4,000 person congregation safe.

Enough with the ironic Trump voter stories

Alexandra Petri has a great summary of “Every story I have read about Trump supporters in the past week” in the Washington Post:

Next to her sits Linda Blarnik. Like the rusty hubcaps hanging on the wall behind her, she was made in America 50 years ago, back when this town made things, a time she still remembers fondly. She says she has had just enough of the “coastal elitist media who keep showing up to write mean things about my town and my life, like that thing just now where you said I was like a hubcap, yes you, stop writing I can see over your shoulder.” Mournfully a whistle blows behind her, the whistle of a train that does not stop in this America any longer.

Much as I appreciated the first couple articles in this genre, I’m getting pretty weary of them, and coming to see them as really pretty problematic.

DSCF6876

First, they look like investigation, but they’re really condescension. Reporters who a year ago (and ten years ago) should have gone to rural Pennsylvania, or the former factory town in Ohio, or that corner diner in Kansas, are finally doing their jobs — or so it seems. But too easily the pieces fall into condescension, and turn into stories about people being hurt by the person they thought would save them. The stories could all be headlined,

Local Man’s Fate Feeds Our Confirmation Bias About His Political Stupidity

Second, they reduce politics to a narrow set of transactions: I vote for you, you give me a bridge contract, or a job, or deport my Spanish-speaking neighbors (but not the decent one who owns the factory, he’s okay.) Contrast this with the high idealism of Clinton supporters, casting their votes to shatter that final glass ceiling, and make America even greater.

My old elementary school

Finally, they unintentionally reflect a world-view that is very, very Trumpian: they turn politics into the pursuit of personal gain, the satisfaction of tribal grievances, and the narrowing of a vision of America. These stories only work as irony (or tragedy) if the authors accept the premise that politics is about making great deals, not the expression of ideals.

But sometimes people vote to express their ideals, not to maximize their short-term interests. People with teenage sons in 1944 who voted for FDR probably weren’t hoping that their sons would be killed; but they recognized the dangers of fascism, and that its destruction was important. When people choose to make sacrifices for the long-term benefit of groups, or when they accept the burdens of doing things like defending their country, they’re not being saps.

And even if you enjoy stories of voters being hurt by the people they elected, you need to ask how the experience is going to affect their choices next time. Don’t take for granted that Linda Blarnik will switch parties next time; worry that her next vote will go to someone who promises to make Trump look like an scion of the Establishment.

How to make Silicon Valley the enemy (it wouldn’t be that hard)

Two articles on Silicon Valley’s reaction to the election of Donald Trump caught my eye this morning. Christopher Mims writes in the Wall Street Journal about how “Tuesday’s election by Donald Trump was an expression of voter angst that heralded a new type of populism. For Silicon Valley, it also marked the ascension of a vision starkly at odds with its own.” In The Guardian, meanwhile, Julie Carrie Wong has a piece about the Valley’s cautious reaction to Trump, and their weighing the prospect of the ascension of “decidedly pro-business ideas” against immigration restrictions and other policies that could hurt the Valley. Together, they make for some very interesting reading.

As Mims notes, some of the difference is cultural and political: the Valley and Bay Area are famously cosmopolitan, left-leaning outliers. Some of it is policy: the Valley’s chieftains have been enthusiastic about open borders, generous immigration policy, and generally the whole neoliberal agenda. And more generally, there’s a suspicion that for all his business bona fides, Trump doesn’t really quite understand high tech. Wong, meanwhile, notes the unease of immigrants over Trump’s embrace of xenophobia.

Both pieces touch on two other things that I think could lead to the Valley being demonized if the miraculous job comeback that Trump has promised doesn’t materialize.

First, there’s the industry’s attitude toward labor and automation. Wong has this great bit:

Still, other Trump promises might create new markets ripe for Silicon Valley’s favorite form of disruptive innovation, such as his plan to deport millions of undocumented immigrants, some of whom form the bulk of the country’s agricultural labor force. That might create opportunity for the “agtech” sector, [venture capitalist Tim] Wilson said.

“If they really are serious and farm labor gets threatened, then anything that automates labor is something that is going to uptrend,” he said.

As Mims writes,

The populist wave Mr. Trump rode appears to be on a collision course with the fruits of technology and the people who build it.

Uber Technologies Inc. and others are testing self-driving trucks. That augurs trouble for the 3.5 million truck drivers in the U.S., who hold some of the best-paying jobs that don’t require a college degree. Meanwhile, advances in artificial intelligence are beginning to consume white-collar jobs in fields such as medicine and finance, shifting the debate over the impact of technology.

I’m not sure when it happened, but Silicon Valley has come to treat the destruction of other people’s work and jobs as an opportunity for itself. “Disrupt” doesn’t just mean make supply chains more efficient, or give consumers more choice. It also means take away people’s livelihoods.

It’s especially striking when you juxtapose this attitude against the simultaneous rise of design thinking and ethnography and HCI and human-centered computing (not to mention the enthusiasm for chatbots and conversational computing).

When thinking about interfaces and smartphones and wearables, it’s critical to pay attention to people and their needs. When we’re thinking about automating their jobs or making it possible for employers to undercut workers’ autonomy and power, that empathy vanishes.

The ride-sharing app absolutely has to have an easy-to-use interface.

The fact that it’s the front end of a system that’s destroying your ability to feed your family?

¯\_(ツ)_/¯

(Though no one should be surprised if Valley companies don’t think about the lives of workers in Pennsylvania or North Dakota, since it often seems we barely think about the lives of working-class people in East Palo Alto or Hayward.)

The second thing that the Mims and Wong pieces touch on is a sense that, well, Silicon Valley really isn’t part of America. It’s part of the future, and so all your rage and resistance against what the Valley brings is just futile. We’ve already beta tested the future. It just hasn’t reached you yet.

The Valley also isn’t part of America in the sense that some of those who do well in it see themselves as citizens of the world. They could be anywhere, and if things get bad, they always have the option to decamp for friendlier locations (taking their unicorn companies and great ideas with them).

This has made living here exciting, but I wonder if it’s an attitude that could create some problems in the future. Mims has this illuminating exchange:

To many in Silicon Valley, this [automation and the disappearance of blue-collar jobs] is just part of inexorable progress. Electing Mr. Trump won’t shield his supporters from the reality that they are now competing with every other worker on Earth, says Balaji Srinivasan, a board partner at venture-capital firm Andreessen Horowitz and CEO of bitcoin startup 21 Inc.

Mr. Srinivasan views the collision between tech culture and Mr. Trump’s populist movement as inevitable, and potentially so divisive that tech’s global elites should effectively secede from their respective countries, an idea he calls “the ultimate exit.”

Already, he says, elites in Silicon Valley are more connected to one another and to their counterparts around the globe than to non-techies in their midst or nearby. “My Stanford network connects to Harvard and Beijing more than [California’s] Central Valley,” says Mr. Srinivasan. Eventually, he argues, “there will be a recognition that if we don’t have control of the nation state, we should reduce the nation state’s power over us.”

(Inevitability is another way of saying, “I’m profiting from this but I’m not responsible for it.”)

The idea that credentials and networks and wealth not only make us the future but give us the ability to opt out of the nation should we so choose could become raw meat for populists.

If I were an ambitious politician, I could have a field day with this stuff. If my policies tank, the jobs don’t come back, or high-tech companies balk at the idea of relocating their factories from Shenzhen to Youngstown, I could pin the blame on a wealthy, cosmopolitan, rootless elite that sees itself as part of a global order opposed to the nation-state, that is actively seeking to destroy America by draining its wealth and destroying its jobs.

Here’s what I’d say. “Our efforts to bring American back are failing not because we lack heart or vision or soul, but because we are being subverted by an elite that has relentlessly aimed to sap our might.

“First this elite took factories and shipped them to China, and used that money to enrich and empower a nation that now challenges us on the world stage.

“Now they’re automating the jobs they couldn’t offshore.

“They’re replacing hard-working truck drivers with self-driving trucks.

“They’re replacing coal miners with robots.

“They’re replacing nurses with chatbots and automated ‘wellness stations.’

“They’re intentionally replacing stable jobs with temporary labor.

“They use foreign-made smartphones and toys to distract you while they siphon our wealth into cryptocurrencies beloved mainly by drug dealers.

“They gleefully destroy your livelihoods in order to enrich themselves, and call it progress.

“And they declare themselves ‘citizens of the world’ who aren’t beholden to our laws, who have no loyalty to the United States, who care only about themselves and their ‘networks’.

“These are the people who are keeping you down. Give me the freedom to take them on, and the good times will finally return.”

And there’d be just enough reality mixed into the lie to make it stick. I couldn’t ask for a better enemy.

Alain de Botton on “The Citizen in Frightened Times”

Alain de Botton, on “The Citizen in Frightened Times:”

It is an enormous and very rare privilege to have lived in the days of good government. Across nations and centuries, few people have ever done so. By a rare bit of luck, certain groups in a few corners of the globe tasted decades of this remarkable, anomalous blessing. They might even, foolishly (especially if they traveled little, seldom read history books or had a very high estimation of their own populations) have started to assume it was a natural or God-given norm.

Yet the default state of almost all nations is quite other; it is authoritarianism, bullying, demagoguery, corruption, monopoly, racial segregation and state-sponsored aggression and murder. We will not now, it seems, be living in dramatically unusual times; it was the years before that will be remembered as unusual: a daring bet against the facts of human nature. We aren’t sliding into a new age of darkness, we are reverting to a mean. Civilization was always, simply, an unlikely concept….

We shouldn’t be surprised by our fellow citizens. That is what the human animal is really like: very sweet at points from close up, usually generous to small children and the elderly, hard-working, but highly prone to delusion, tribal, offended by strangers, disinclined to rational analysis and with a fondness for slaughter and reckless messianic plans. The elite are not “out of touch” because they forget what a gallon of milk costs, but because they forget how dark and broken human nature is.

“Nobody knows anything”

“Nobody knows anything…… Not one person in the entire motion picture field knows for a certainty what’s going to work. Every time out it’s a guess and, if you’re lucky, an educated one.” (William Goldman, screenwriter)

Sums up my feelings this morning.

Via The Reformed Banker

This feels like a good description of the day

Still going to try to do some writing today, but this captures lots of my friends’ mood:

How “weak parties and strong partisanship” brought us 2016

Political scientist Julia Azari has an essay on Vox explaining the rise of Trump in terms of “weak parties and strong partisanship:”

The defining characteristic of our moment is that parties are weak while partisanship is strong…. it is a particularly dangerous combination [because] parties can’t control whom they nominate. But their adherents — elites and ordinary voters alike — are prepared to support them.

Why is this a very bad combination? It encourages polarization between parties, and a heightened sense that people who belong to other parties, and the candidates they support, are evil. It creates an environment in which partisan voters can be mobilized to vote against the opposition even if they have strong reservations about their own candidate. It means that the apparatus of a political party can more easily fall into the hands of someone who doesn’t believe in the party’s major principles, but succeeds in appealing to its rank and file.

And it also makes moderation much less likely in governing. Compromise with the other party seen as weakness, but each side is less likely to have things that the other wants or needs. As ideological purity becomes more important, it becomes more dangerous for politicians to engage in bipartisan deals, or to be seen as wavering or uncertain in their ideological commitment. And partisanship undermines institutions. As Azari puts it, “It’s hard for institutions — elected ones like Congress, the presidency, or state governments,” or for “courts and, as we’ve seen most recently, law enforcement agencies” to be seen as trustworthy when citizens are inclined to “view much of what these institutions do through a partisan lens.”

And of course the bad news here is that the structural forces that gave rise to Trump are either not going to go away if he loses, or will overwhelm to GOP and Washington if he wins. One is hard pressed to imagine a cabinet consisting of his most ardent supporters and apologists serving as a balance against his authoritarian tendencies; and Capitol Hill hasn’t exactly been Profiles in Courage so far either.

QOTD: Republican consultant Mike Murphy about trying to train Donald Trump

It’s like being Charlie Manson’s foxtrot instructor. You go out there, you teach him a few moves, and you think, ‘Hey, look at that, he can learn the foxtrot.’ And the next thing you know, he’s trying to put a pen in your eye, because he’s Charlie Manson.

Source: Live Coverage of the Republican National Convention: Day 4

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