Real Estate Gold

This article published in Bloomberg should give us pause, because it’s not only in China where real estate leverage has become too big to fail. (And our POTUS is a real estate magnate.) In the aftermath of the financial crisis of 2008, real estate portfolios were not allowed to fail and Fed credits were used to protect excessive investment. Now we have a stark divide in the fundamental values of real estate versus the inflated prices of a product that is tax-subsidized and priced solely on the margin. As a speculative trading asset rather than basic shelter, housing has now become the tail that wags the dog of our lives. This is pretty insane, and plants us back in the age of land feudalism.

The problem, which is not only a US problem but a global one, is excess cheap credit that has led to a generational credit-debt bubble in the private and public sectors. It promotes the imbalance between China and the rest of the world and drives inequality world-wide. It reflects coordinated central bank policy under the leadership of the US Federal Reserve that was made possible by the untethering of fiat currencies – giving governments world-wide discretion over the value of their currencies.  We’ve tried to grow faster than our productivity warrants. It has greatly increased systemic risk, price volatility, and uncertainty over price signals. For example, what is a house really worth? $100K of materials or $5 million based on the marginal value of land? Or how much somebody can borrow against it?

Ultimately, the value of scarce land will have to be taxed accordingly, an idea put forth by Henry George more than a century ago.

Evergrande Is Too Big to Fail Thanks to Its Huge Land Holdings

China’s Most Indebted Firm Is Too Big to Fail

This property developer is borrowing even more to expand into unlikely projects, such as electric vehicles. But there’s a method to the madness.

There’s a lot working against China’s most indebted property firm. China Evergrande Group is sitting on $113.7 billion in debt and its core profit fell 45% in the first half of the year. Real-estate growth is slowing, with banks under orders to curb home loans. President Xi Jinping’s refrain that houses are for living in, not speculation, has been cropping up more frequently. 

Time to rein things in, right? Not Evergrande. The company, whose portfolio already includes theme parks and a football club, now wants to become the world’s biggest electric-vehicle maker in the next three to five years. It’s burning through precious cash – 160 billion yuan ($22 billion) – to build factories in Guangzhou. 

Investors are voting on this folly with their feet. The company’s shares have fallen 30% this year, making Evergrande the worst performer among Hong Kong-listed Chinese developers. The property firm’s borrowing costs are among the highest in the offshore dollar market and its bonds are tumbling.  

For anyone gawking at Evergrande’s improbably ballooning debt load, just waiting for the doomsday clock to strike midnight, there’s a valuable lesson: This firm is too big to fail. Evergrande is one of China’s biggest developers – with projects in 226 cities – and its billionaire founder, Hui Ka Yan, is the country’s third-richest man. With property accounting for about a quarter of China’s gross domestic product, any instability in the sector has proven too much for Beijing to stomach. Time and again, the government has reluctantly reopened the credit spigots to boost a flagging real-estate market. Just look at 2008, 2011 and 2014. [As we have in the US, leading to a big gap between those who own real estate and those who rent or would like to buy.]

Crucially, Evergrande has China’s largest land reserve, with 276 million square meters (905 million square feet) of gross floor area, according to Citigroup Inc. While the developer has a lot of exposure to China’s smaller cities, where growth is slowing rapidly, it also dominates redevelopment in big, rich cities such as Shenzhen, where profit margins are robust. 

Land is scarce in Shenzhen, and urban renewal – demolishing old, low-density buildings to make way for high-rise apartments – is widely seen as the answer to the city’s growing population. These projects also give Evergrande access to cheap lots, which helps keep its land costs among the lowest of its peers, according to Toni Ho, an analyst at RHB Securities. If the protests in Hong Kong accelerate China’s plans to make Shenzhen the the next “global cosmopolis,” according to state-run Xinhua News Agency, Evergrande could be in a plum position.

The company’s diversification into electric cars is sure to bleed money for years, and competition is getting stiffer. During his visit to China last week, Elon Musk managed to score a tax break for Tesla Inc. But carrying out one of Xi’s signature projects has its perks: For example, clean-car manufacturers can get land much more cheaply from local governments than real-estate developers. That helps explain why a host of firms including Country Garden Holdings Co. and Agile Group Holdings Ltd. are jumping in.

Being in Beijing’s favor and securing low-cost inputs is no bad thing for a cash-strapped developer like Evergrande. Maybe there’s a method to the madness of its wild spending.

Social Media and Social Networks: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly.

View at Medium.com

Our obsession with our mobile phones has distracted us from the essential awareness of where we are and where we are going.

 

In our Information Age, social media engagement has become ubiquitous, and contagious. According to recent surveys, internet users are now spending an average of 2.3 hours per day on social networking and messaging platforms (the most popular being Facebook and YouTube).

This proliferation of online social networks (OSNs) has had both good and bad consequences. In What Technology Wants, technology author Kevin Kelly gushes with the promise of social connection:

Right before my eyes, I saw online networks connect people with ideas, options, and other people they could not possibly have met otherwise. Online networks unleashed passions, compounded creativity, amplified generosity.[i] (italicsmine)

In Alone Together, psychologist and author Sherry Turkle examines how technology, in turn, shapes our social interaction:

People love their new technologies of connection. They have made parents and children feel more secure and have revolutionized business, education, scholarship, and medicine. …They have changed how we date and how we travel. The global reach of connectivity can make the most isolated outpost into a center of learning and economic activity. The word “apps” summons the pleasure of tasks accomplished on mobile devices, some of which, only recently, we would not have dreamed possible…[ii]

Nonetheless, we’ve witnessed how this wondrous technology also imposes a Faustian bargain, with implications for our social relationships, mental health and happiness, and our public discourse. Turkle presents a large body of evidence that portrays the tech generation as increasingly insecure, isolated, and lonely. We’ve discovered that digital connections offer the illusion of companionship without the commitment of friendship. We are drawn to the comfort of connection without the demands of intimacy. Facebook offers us hundreds of “friends,” but not a single one to confide in. What’s happening, Turkle discovered, is that as we expect more from technology, we expect less from each other.

On the societal level, social media has come under fire for promoting political propaganda and fostering malicious or even violent behavior, polarizing democratic societies into uncompromising bubbles. The negatives are starting to outweigh the positives.

In order to better manage this technology, we need to investigate the positive and negative effects of OSNs so we can enhance the good, minimize the bad, and, if possible, eliminate the ugly. Let us start by summarizing these mixed effects:

1. The Good: social media has enriched opportunities for social connection and genuine friendship across distances, much as the telephone did a century ago. It has enabled decentralized peer-to-peer information sharing that can be essential during times of crisis. Social media has increased the potential for serendipity in social relationships and social participation. Finally, social networking has aided in building more robust communities among like-minded users and also enabled connections across diverse groups.

2. The Bad: social media engagement is often contagious (and is designed to be that way) and can become addicting. This can lead to asocial behavior with personal narcissism and status seeking. As a substitute for real human connection, it can lead to emotional isolation and severe anxiety due to fear of missing out (FOMO). Public metrics, like the number of friends, can contribute to feelings of inferiority and despair. Social networking can erect barriers as well as break them down.

3. The Ugly: the competition for status on social networks can lead to malicious gossip and bullying. Emotional isolation increases the potential for violent anti-social behavior, such as that promoted by the Unabomber. Social media has generated misinformation and political propaganda on a large scale, diminishing our trust in social institutions and enabling malignant actors to organize their mischief. Lastly, it has empowered the invasion of our personal privacy, often through our own ignorance of the dangers.

What separates the good from the bad and ugly? Largely it is the nature of the content and the context in which it is shared. Much of the deterioration of online content and interaction can be attributed to the advertising revenue models of the platforms, where the business incentives of the platforms do not align well with the social needs and wants of users. Social media giants like Facebook and YouTube generate huge advertising revenues from free, user-generated content. It is not in their interest to guard user privacy, but rather to promote all data sharing to monetize. They reap no meaningful benefit by costly monitoring of users or content, so their platforms have become playgrounds for trolls, flamers, bullies, hackers, propagandists, and digital media addicts.

Turkle observes that the psychological logic of social networks can be stated thus, “I share, therefore I am.” This is a degenerate form of René Descartes’s famous proposition, “I think, therefore I am.” One might smartly identify one major problem of social networking as “I share before I think.” There’s certainly some truth to that, but the psychology goes deeper than this. Turkle argues that we have used OSN technology to alleviate social isolation, but also to avoid the emotional intimacy that often makes social relationships uncomfortable, but ultimately rewarding.

Many who have felt this odd tension have disengaged completely, as reflected in attrition rates for OSNs. But with so many benefits, the public will not abandon social networking; rather, we must and will transform it. Consider the fact that Facebook is actually a centralized global gossip network. Even given the benefits of gossip for monitoring social behavior in small communities, a global gossip network makes no sense from a social human psychology perspective.

So, how do we promote good effects and weed out the bad effects? First, the sharing of content becomes meaningless if the actual content is devoid of meaning. The blessing and curse of the Information Age is Too Much Information. Given the constraints of the time and energy required for attention, why are we distracting ourselves with nonsense on social media?

If we look at Maslow’s hierarchy of psychological needs, we find the pinnacle of self-actualization occupied by moral thinking, creativity, and problem-solving. These provide meaning to our inner lives. At the next stage down we find self-esteem, confidence, and mutual respect, while at the third level we find social connection and belonging. Below these are the crucial stages of personal security and physiological needs. The first four stages of human needs are necessary, but the meaning of our lives is attained through the final stage at the top of the pyramid. One might expand Descartes’s proposition to: “I think, I create, I imagine; therefore I am.”

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs

 

Meaningful information is valued more than trivia, but what is meaningful? That depends somewhat on the context of social interaction. Friendships tend to focus on highly personal and particular information and content, i.e., photos of your dog or last night’s homemade casserole. Larger scale networks lean toward more universal ideas, content, or information. Huge centralized platforms, what we might call Big Social, are seeing less engagement, with a wide range of new niche platforms stealing the attention and devotion of people who prefer decentralized and peer-to-peer interactions outside a system of attention control based on advertising. These niche competitors will be less focused on sharing and more on what is being shared and with whom. To promote meaning in human interaction social media needs to be more about imagining, creating and collaborating. Such connections are more in tune with the human than the technological. These activities enhance our mental health rather than distract us. Psychological studies show that creative stimulation and interaction can help reverse debilitating addictions.

Who we share meaning with, in what context, is becoming more crucial to online engagement. User anonymity provides cover for anti-social behavior as anonymous users can do and say anything without being sanctioned or censored. Fake user accounts lead to fake information and uninhibited abuse of community trust. It’s like going to a masquerade ball and entrusting your valuables to masked actors who cannot be identified. The loss of privacy in the context of meaningful social interaction is secondary to building trust and reputational capital through accountability, which makes privacy less salient.

The challenge for the future of social networking, as it moves away from Big Social into smaller niche platforms, is whether we can use technology to avoid segregating ourselves into smaller tribal communities that inhibit interaction with a world larger than our provincial concerns, while at the same time retaining the human scale of social interaction.

Appropriate technological and business model design should be able to solve this problem because technology tackles the tasks of searching, filtering, sorting, connecting, and reconnecting far more efficiently than serendipitous face-to-face social interaction. A good example is online dating, with the stark comparison between eHarmony and Tinder. Social networking should help us coordinate rather than segregate. It should enable us to harmonize our social interactions in a positive direction, according to complex matrices of particular interests, while also allowing us to filter out unwanted noise and negativity.

This networking challenge is best addressed by empowering human assets within the network, rather than relying solely on mechanistic algorithms based on network metrics. As Turkle says, real communities are constituted by physical proximity, shared concerns, real consequences, and common responsibilities. Also by real people. Online connectivity relaxes the physical proximity constraint, but the shared human imperatives of socialization remain, even when we connect through a computer interface.

Looking into the future of social media and social networking, we can summarize the aforementioned qualities it will likely need to embody:

1. The future will be decentralized. We have little need for a centralized global gossip network. Rather platforms will be built on peer-to-peer interactions, which means decentralized control;

2. Content matters. Content is valued by participants in the social community. Content that does not enhance the value of the network needs to be screened out, by users and/or the design of the network;

3. No anonymity. Community networks will reward reputational capital and reciprocity through verified identities, so there is a negative carry cost to anonymity. This, along with potential sanctions, helps minimize threats by bad actors;

4. User engagement in managing network dynamics is essential. User control not only encourages participation and engagement in the community, but it also places responsibility and accountability for engagement in the right hands. The human element is critical;

5. Scale matters, especially for social engagement. Everything else is broadcasting. Larger sharing networks can be filtered and segregated into smaller entities for engagement, without losing connection to the larger community.

The future will be better.

 


[i] Kevin Kelly, What Technology Wants.

[ii] Sherry Turkle, Alone Together. Turkle also presents her views in a compelling TED Talk.

You Say Po-tay-to and I Say Po-tah-to!

Our political divide between left and right is most often characterized by the media as an ideological battle between liberalism and conservatism. Yet the meanings of these ideological terms are too often misinterpreted and mischaracterized – mostly by the opposing point of view – in order to fit a preferred political narrative. For those on the left, liberalism implies tolerance and empathy, while conservatism connotes bigotry and selfishness. For those on the right, liberalism infers intellectual naiveté and moral degeneracy, while conservatism assumes moral rectitude and time-tested reason. A clear understanding of political ideology can be useful; false stereotypes much less so. We should unpackage these terms as they are used in the popular vernacular to understand just how unhelpful and misguided they have become.

The etymological root of liberal is liber, or free, as it pertains to individual human rights and freedoms. Merriam-Webster offers this definition: a political philosophy based on belief in progress, the essential goodness of the human race, and the autonomy (i.e., freedom) of the individual and standing for the protection of political and civil liberties. Liberalism shares the same root as liberty and it would be difficult to find an American conservative who was not attuned to the universal idea of individual liberty.

Likewise, the root of conservative is conservare, meaning to preserve. Merriam-Webster offers the following definition: a political philosophy based on tradition and social stability, stressing established institutions, and preferring gradual development to abrupt change. If one assumes the evolutionary perspective, it would be difficult to find a society, American liberal or otherwise, that did not seek to preserve certain time-worn traditions in the interests of stability and self-preservation. We should also note that conservatism shares the same word root as conservation, so nature weighs in on this meaning as well.

So where did we get the idea that these ideologies are opposed? Merriam-Webster is partly culpable by posing these ideologies as antonyms but, as we will discover, they should be mostly viewed as useful complements.

Jonathan Haidt, in his psychological studies summarized in The Righteous Mind, explains how our ideological leanings can be expressed through complex moral matrices, where differences arise in moral interpretations and priorities. Haidt cites six moral precepts: 1) care; 2) liberty; 3) fairness; 4) loyalty; 5) authority; 6) sanctity. Haidt results show how liberals privilege the first three, while conservatives employ a mix of all six, giving additional weight to loyalty, authority, and sanctity.

One should read Haidt’s book to understand the nuances of these moral matrices, but the major divergence between our conceptions of liberal and conservative seem to revolve around the moral values of care and fairness. Haidt argues that everyone cares about fairness, but there are two major kinds.: “On the left, fairness often implies equality, but on the right it means proportionality—people should be rewarded in proportion to what they contribute, even if that guarantees unequal outcomes.” Implicit in these interpretations is the idea that consequences follow actions, but some consequences are rooted in contextual factors that are outside the individual’s control, such as educational opportunity. The takeaway from Haidt’s studies is that these moral matrices are hardly set in concrete and can be easily reconciled through a fuller understanding of the different emphases. They do not really divide us into red vs. blue.

The other dichotomy posed by our definitions of liberal and conservative is the implication that conservatives are intolerant and resistant to change while liberals seek to remove institutional barriers to change. Conservatives may be guilty of saying ‘don’t fix what ain’t broke,’ while liberals may be guilty of forcing change without due regard to the uncertainty inherent in change. But there is a way of reconciling these two approaches to inevitable change.

All societies embrace change to a certain degree, what matters is the pace of change. Change that is disruptive to social traditions naturally will be resisted by those it disrupts. This does not mean change will not occur, it merely means the pace must be managed prudently. Pushing change beyond the limits of social adaptation often leads to reactionary backlashes, causing undo conflict over the inevitable. The gradual evolution of cultural mores is a good example of how change occurs within the limits of order and stability. Naturally, there will be those in society who object to the too slow or too rapid pace of change.

Finally, opinion polls and surveys suggest that fewer Americans define themselves as truly liberal or conservative, with conservatives exceeding liberals by roughly 35% to 26%, though the gap has been closing. I would also guess these poll numbers are biased by the partisan mischaracterization of both ideological labels.

If this is the case, how do we politically define or classify most American voters? Perhaps we don’t. I would suggest that average non-political Americans are neither conservative nor liberal as strictly defined by their true ideological meanings. Elsewhere I have suggested that most of us, regardless of our politics, are both tolerant and traditional. I have called this dominant ideology based on liberty and justice tolerant traditionalism, as opposed to conservative or liberal. Americans are generally willing to adapt to societal changes as best we can, embracing the good to come of it while feeling wistful for the past we know. Societies that evolve and endure by adapting to change have a proud past and an ever-brighter future.

Why We’re Jaded With Facebook

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Facebook has been under constant fire for more than a year now and seems unable to answer its critics. Under such criticism the company’s executive team has promised to make user privacy its primary concern, until the next revelation exposes its duplicity. Now it seems every other week another article is written demanding that Facebook be broken up or regulated by government oversight.

We might wonder what exactly is wrong with Facebook and why can’t they fix it?

https://www.tukaglobal.com/why-were-jaded-with-facebook

 

Networks and Hierarchies

This is a review of British historian Niall Ferguson’s new book titled The Square and the Tower: Networks, Hierarchies and the Struggle for Global Power. It’s interesting to take the long arc of history into account in this day and age of global communication networks, which might seem to herald the permanent dominance of networks over hierarchies. That history cautions us otherwise.

Ferguson notes two predominant ages of networks: the advent of the printing press in 1452 that led to an explosion of networks across the world until around 1800. This was the Enlightenment period that helped transform economics, politics, and social relations.

Today, the second age of networks consumes us, starting at about 1970 with microchip technology and continuing forward to the present. It is the age of telecommunications, digital technology, and global networks. Ours is an age where it seems “everything is connected.”

Ferguson notes that, beginning with the invention of written language,  all that has happened is that new technologies have facilitated our innate, ancient urge to network – in other words, to connect. This seems to affirm Aristotle’s observation that “man is a social animal,” as well as a large library of psychological behavioral studies over the past century. He also notes that most networks may reflect a power law distribution and be scale-free. In other words, large networks grow larger and become more valuable as they do so. This means the rich get richer and most social networks are profoundly inegalitarian. This implies that the GoogleAmazonFacebookApple (GAFA) oligarchy may be taking over the world, leaving the rest of us as powerless as feudal serfs.

But there is a fatal weakness inherent to this futuristic scenario, in that complex networks create interdependent relationships that can lead to catastrophic cascades, such as the global financial crisis of 2008. Or an explosion of “fake news” and misinformation spewed out by global gossip networks.

We are also seeing a gradual deconstruction of networks that compete with the power of nation-state sovereignty. This is reflected in the rise of nationalistic politics in democracies and authoritarian monopoly control over information in autocracies.

However, from the angle of hierarchical control, Ferguson notes that failures of democratic governance through the administrative state “represents the last iteration of political hierarchy: a system that spews out rules, generates complexity, and undermines both prosperity and stability.”

These historical paths imply that the conflict between distributed networks and concentrated hierarchies is likely a natural tension in search of an uneasy equilibrium.

Ferguson notes “if Facebook initially satisfied the human need to gossip, it was Twitter – founded in March 2006 – that satisfied the more specific need to exchange news, often (though not always) political.” But when I read Twitter feeds I’m thinking Twitter may be more of a tool for disruption rather than constructive dialogue. In other words, we can use these networking technologies to tear things down, but not so much to build them back up again.

As a Twitter co-founder confesses:

‘I thought once everybody could speak freely and exchange information and ideas, the world is automatically going to be a better place,’ said Evan Williams, one of the co-founders of Twitter in May 2017. ‘I was wrong about that.’

Rather, as Ferguson asserts, “The lesson of history is that trusting in networks to run the world is a recipe for anarchy: at best, power ends up in the hands of the Illuminati, but more likely it ends up in the hands of the Jacobins.”

Ferguson is quite pessimistic about today’s dominance of networks, with one slim ray of hope. As he writes,

“…how can an urbanized, technologically advanced society avoid disaster when its social consequences are profoundly inegalitarian?

“To put the question more simply: can a networked world have order? As we have seen, some say that it can. In the light of historical experience, I very much doubt it.”

That slim ray of hope? Blockchain technology!

A thought-provoking book.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Pondering National Governance

This is a recent article published in the NY Times. To make any sense of our answers to this question requires some ideological and historical clarity. [Blog comments]

Is the United States Too Big to Govern?

By Neil Gross

May 11, 2018

Last month the Pew Research Center released a poll showing that Americans are losing faith in their system of government. Only one-fifth of adults surveyed believe democracy is working “very well” in the United States, while two-thirds say “significant changes” are needed to governmental “design and structure.” [Because nobody really knows what these words mean, or they don’t agree among the many meanings, polling results are questionable indicators.]

The 2016 election is one explanation for these findings. Something is not right in a country where Donald Trump is able to win the presidency. [Well, that’s a selective value judgment – one could easily substitute in the names Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders. The point of a democratic society is that the people get to make those decisions and the people agree to abide by them or revolt. Are the people revolting against themselves or against their political representatives?]  

But here’s another possibility: What if trust in American democracy is eroding because the nation has become too big to be effectively governed through traditional means? With a population of more than 325 million and an enormously complex society, perhaps this country has passed a point where — no matter whom we elect — it risks becoming permanently dissatisfied with legislative and governmental performance. [There’s an implicit assumption here that the original intent of the founders is that some central authority should “govern” the affairs of the population and manage the national interest (“traditional means”?). This is probably half true in that a national interest must be represented as the sum of its many parts. We have a Federal government. What was not intended was an all-powerful Federal government.]

Political thinkers, worried about the problem of size, have long advocated small republics. Plato and Aristotle admired the city-state because they thought reason and virtue could prevail only when a polis was small enough that citizens could be acquaintances. Montesquieu, the 18th-century French political philosopher, picked up where the ancient Greeks left off, arguing for the benefits of small territories. “In a large republic,” he wrote, “the common good is sacrificed to a thousand considerations,” whereas in a smaller one the common good “is more strongly felt, better known, and closer to each citizen.” [I suspect Dunbar’s number is at work here.]

The framers of the United States Constitution were keenly aware of these arguments. As the political scientists Robert Dahl and Edward Tufte noted in their 1973 book, “Size and Democracy,” the framers embraced federalism partly because they thought that states were closer in scale to the classical ideal. Ultimately, however, a counterargument advanced by James Madison won the day: Larger republics better protected democracy, he claimed, because their natural political diversity made it difficult for any supersized faction to form and dominate. [With Federalism and the separation of powers and overlapping jurisdictions, I think the founders split the difference here.]

Two and a half centuries later, the accumulated social science suggests that Madison’s optimism was misplaced. Smaller, it seems, is better. [This is a false and impossible choice. When complex networks grow too large, they break-up into smaller, more manageable pieces, but these smaller entities are vulnerable to competitive pressures. This is true in industrial organization, economic and financial markets, and digital and social networks. It also applies to social choice and governance. The founders’ idea was to create a coordinated network of states, counties, and municipalities to manage affairs at the appropriate jurisdictional level. National issues are the sole responsibility of a Federal government balanced by parochial interests. This would secure the strongest union to guarantee citizens’ rights and freedoms. As that task grows in complexity, the need for decentralization and coordination reasserts itself.] 

There are clear economic and military advantages to being a large country. But when it comes to democracy, the benefits of largeness — defined by population or geographic area — are hard to find. Examining data on the world’s nations from the 19th century until today, the political scientists John Gerring and Wouter Veenendaal recently discovered that although size is correlated with electoral competition (in line with the Madisonian argument), there is no association between size and many other standard measures of democratic functioning, such as limits on executive power or the provision of human rights. [Another question raised here is what exactly we mean by democracy. Strictly democracy means government by the people, but popular democracy is a narrow offshoot of that definition. IT also begs the question of what a government by the people is trying to accomplish. Our founders made it clear they thought it was life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.  Note: the pursuit of happiness, not its guarantee.]

In fact, large nations turn out to have what the political scientist Pippa Norris has called “democratic deficits”: They don’t fully satisfy their citizens’ demands for democracy. [Again, what is that demand? Is it coherent?] For one thing, citizens in large nations are generally less involved in politics and feel they have less of a voice. [Are they unable to secure life, liberty and pursue happiness or do they just not like the results?] Voter turnout is lower. [Low voter turnout could mean that voters are happy with the status quo, or don’t believe voting matters to their individual fates.] According to the political scientist Karen Remmer, smaller-scale political entities encourage voting in ways large ones can’t by “creating a sense of community” and “enforcing norms of citizenship responsibility.” [Perhaps because they enjoy more intrinsic rewards to participation. This would suggest more localized control over politics.] In addition, small countries promote political involvement by leaning heavily on forms of direct democracy, like referendums or citizen assemblies. [This is a feature of scale. Direct democracy on a large scale can empower the tyranny of the popular majority because the effects are so far removed from that majority.]

A second problem is political responsiveness: The policies of large nations can be slow to change, even if change is needed and desired. In a book published last year, the sociologists John Campbell and John Hall compared the reactions to the 2007-2008 financial crisis in Denmark, Ireland, and Switzerland. These three small countries didn’t cause the crisis; a homegrown Irish housing bubble notwithstanding, the shock wave they dealt with came from America. But though the countries were economically vulnerable, Mr. Campbell and Mr. Hall observed, this vulnerability fostered unexpected resilience and creativity, generating in each nation “a sense of solidarity or ‘we-ness’” that brought together politicians, regulators, and bankers eager to do whatever was necessary to calm markets. [Again, a sense of “we-ness” is one of scale. Cultural homogeneity helps.] 

With the United States lacking the same sense of shared fate and vulnerability, American policymakers could organize only a tepid response, which helps explain why the recovery here was so slow. This theory sheds light as well on developments in environmental and social welfare policy, where it is increasingly common to find a complacent America lagging behind its smaller, more innovative peers. [Complexity plus centralization leads to sclerosis, which is why centralizing authority in a large, diverse, pluralist society make be unworkable.] 

Finally, largeness can take a toll on citizen trust. The presence of a wide variety of social groups and cultures is the primary reason for this. Nearly all scholars who study country size recognize, as Madison did, that large nations are more socially heterogeneous, whether because they represent an amalgamation of different regions, each with its own ethnolinguistic, religious or cultural heritage; or because their economic vitality encourages immigration; or because population size and geographic spread promote the growth of distinctive subcultures; or because they have more differentiated class structures. [Agreed, which is why encouraging a large diverse population of the virtues of multiculturalism may actually be a detriment. I believe the original idea, or at least the one that prevailed in past influxes of cultural groups, was the melting pot of gradual, voluntary assimilation.]

It isn’t inevitable that a large amount of social variation would undermine trust. Well-governed societies like Canada address the issue by stitching diversity and multiculturalism into their national identities. Yet in the absence of cultural and institutional supports, heterogeneity and trust are frequently in tension, as different ways of life give rise to suspicion and animosity. Without at least a veneer of trust among diverse social groups, politics spirals downward. [This characterization of Canada seems counter-intuitive. Stitching ethnic diversity and multiculturalism into a national identity means that national identity must be based not on ethnicity, race, or diverse cultures but in a national identity based on universal principles and social contracts. In other words, on something called patriotism and fealty to the larger community, subsuming ethnic, racial, and cultural differences.]

The challenges of American largeness are here to stay. The task now is for individuals, civic organizations and institutions to commit themselves to building stronger communities and a renewed sense of shared responsibility and trust among different groups. Within the constraints of our nation’s size, we can create conditions for as much democracy as possible. [So, we converge on the idea that it is inevitable we decentralize power and assume the responsibility of self-governance? What then is the real political conflict of interest?]

Neil Gross is a professor of sociology at Colby College.

What’s Going On?

This is an excellent interview with technology culture guru Jaron Lanier, author of some very insightful books on the clashes between technology and humanism. See comments and highlights below…

And then when you move out of the tech world, everybody’s struggling…

It’s not so much that they’re doing badly, but they have only labor and no capital. Or the way I used to put it is, they have to sing for their supper, for every single meal. It’s making everyone else take on all the risk. It’s like we’re the people running the casino and everybody else takes the risks and we don’t. That’s how it feels to me. It’s not so much that everyone else is doing badly as that they’ve lost economic capital and standing, and momentum and plannability. It’s a subtle difference.

‘One Has This Feeling of Having Contributed to Something That’s Gone Very Wrong’

By Noah Kulwin April 17, 2018 New York Magazine

Over the last few months, Select All has interviewed more than a dozen prominent technology figures about what has gone wrong with the contemporary internet for a project called “The Internet Apologizes.” We’re now publishing lengthier transcripts of each individual interview. This interview features Jaron Lanier, a pioneer in the field of virtual reality and the founder of the first company to sell VR goggles. Lanier currently works at Microsoft Research as an interdisciplinary scientist. He is the author of the forthcoming book Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now.

You can find other interviews from this series here.

Jaron Lanier: Can I just say one thing now, just to be very clear? Professionally, I’m at Microsoft, but when I speak to you, I’m not representing Microsoft at all. There’s not even the slightest hint that this represents any official Microsoft thing. I have an agreement within which I’m able to be an independent public intellectual, even if it means criticizing them. I just want to be very clear that this isn’t a Microsoft position.

Noah Kulwin: Understood.
Yeah, sorry. I really just wanted to get that down. So now please go ahead, I’m so sorry to interrupt you.

In November, you told Maureen Dowd that it’s scary and awful how out of touch Silicon Valley people have become. It’s a pretty forward remark. I’m kind of curious what you mean by that.
To me, one of the patterns we see that makes the world go wrong is when somebody acts as if they aren’t powerful when they actually are powerful. So if you’re still reacting against whatever you used to struggle for, but actually you’re in control, then you end up creating great damage in the world. Like, oh, I don’t know, I could give you many examples. But let’s say like Russia’s still acting as if it’s being destroyed when it isn’t, and it’s creating great damage in the world. And Silicon Valley’s kind of like that.

We used to be kind of rebels, like, if you go back to the origins of Silicon Valley culture, there were these big traditional companies like IBM that seemed to be impenetrable fortresses. And we had to create our own world. To us, we were the underdogs and we had to struggle. And we’ve won. I mean, we have just totally won. We run everything. We are the conduit of everything else happening in the world. We’ve disrupted absolutely everything. Politics, finance, education, media, relationships — family relationships, romantic relationships — we’ve put ourselves in the middle of everything, we’ve absolutely won. But we don’t act like it.

We have no sense of balance or modesty or graciousness having won. We’re still acting as if we’re in trouble and we have to defend ourselves, which is preposterous. And so in doing that we really kind of turn into assholes, you know?

How do you think that siege mentality has fed into the ongoing crisis with the tech backlash?

One of the problems is that we’ve isolated ourselves through extreme wealth and success. Before, we might’ve been isolated because we were nerdy insurgents. But now we’ve found a new method to isolate ourselves, where we’re just so successful and so different from so many other people that our circumstances are different. And we have less in common with all the people whose lives we’ve disrupted. I’m just really struck by that. I’m struck with just how much better off we are financially, and I don’t like the feeling of it.

Personally, I would give up a lot of the wealth and elite status that we have in order to just live in a friendly, more connected world where it would be easier to move about and not feel like everything else is insecure and falling apart. People in the tech world, they’re all doing great, they all feel secure. I mean they might worry about a nuclear attack or something, but their personal lives are really secure.

And then when you move out of the tech world, everybody’s struggling. It’s a very strange thing. The numbers show an economy that’s doing well, but the reality is that the way it’s doing well doesn’t give many people a feeling of security or confidence in their futures. It’s like everybody’s working for Uber in one way or another. Everything’s become the gig economy. And we routed it that way, that’s our doing. There’s this strange feeling when you just look outside of the tight circle of Silicon Valley, almost like entering another country, where people are less secure. It’s not a good feeling. I don’t think it’s worth it, I think we’re wrong to want that feeling.

It’s not so much that they’re doing badly, but they have only labor and no capital. Or the way I used to put it is, they have to sing for their supper, for every single meal. It’s making everyone else take on all the risk. It’s like we’re the people running the casino and everybody else takes the risks and we don’t. That’s how it feels to me. It’s not so much that everyone else is doing badly as that they’ve lost economic capital and standing, and momentum and plannability. It’s a subtle difference.

There’s still this rhetoric of being the underdog in the tech industry. The attitude within the Valley is “Are you kidding? You think we’re resting on our laurels? No! We have to fight for every yard.”

There’s this question of whether what you’re fighting for is something that’s really new and a benefit for humanity, or if you’re only engaged in a sort of contest with other people that’s fundamentally not meaningful to anyone else. The theory of markets and capitalism is that when we compete, what we’re competing for is to get better at something that’s actually a benefit to people, so that everybody wins. So if you’re building a better mousetrap, or a better machine-learning algorithm, then that competition should generate improvement for everybody.

But if it’s a purely abstract competition set up between insiders to the exclusion of outsiders, it might feel like a competition, it might feel very challenging and stressful and hard to the people doing it, but it doesn’t actually do anything for anybody else. It’s no longer genuinely productive for anybody, it’s a fake. And I’m a little concerned that a lot of what we’ve been doing in Silicon Valley has started to take on that quality. I think that’s been a problem in Wall Street for a while, but the way it’s been a problem in Wall Street has been aided by Silicon Valley. Everything becomes a little more abstract and a little more computer-based. You have this very complex style of competition that might not actually have much substance to it.

You look at the big platforms, and it’s not like there’s this bountiful ecosystem of start-ups. The rate of small-business creation is at its lowest in decades, and instead you have a certain number of start-ups competing to be acquired by a handful of companies. There are not that many varying powers, there’s just a few.
That’s something I’ve been complaining about and I’ve written about for a while, that Silicon Valley used to be this place where people could do a start-up and the start-up might become a big company on its own, or it might be acquired, or it might merge into things. But lately it kind of feels like both at the start and at the end of the life of a start-up, things are a little bit more constrained. It used to be that you didn’t have to know the right people, but now you do. You have to get in with the right angel investors or incubator or whatever at the start. And they’re just a small number, it’s like a social order, you have to get into them. And then the output on the other side is usually being acquired by one of a very small number of top companies.

There are a few exceptions, you can see Dropbox’s IPO. But they’re rarer and rarer. And I suspect Dropbox in the future might very well be acquired by one of the giants. It’s not clear that it’ll survive as its own thing in the long term. I mean, we don’t know. I have no inside information about that, I’m just saying that the much more typical scenario now, as you described, is that the companies go to one of the biggies.

I’m kind of curious what you think needs to happen to prevent future platforms, like VR, from going the way of social media and reaching this really profitable crisis state.

A lot of the rhetoric of Silicon Valley that has the utopian ring about creating meaningful communities where everybody’s creative and people collaborate and all this stuff — I don’t wanna make too much of my own contribution, but I was kind of the first author of some of that rhetoric a long time ago. So it kind of stings for me to see it misused. Like, I used to talk about how virtual reality could be a tool for empathy, and then I see Mark Zuckerberg talking about how VR could be a tool for empathy while being profoundly nonempathic, using VR to tour Puerto Rico after the storm, after Maria. One has this feeling of having contributed to something that’s gone very wrong.

So I guess the overall way I think of it is, first, we might remember ourselves as having been lucky that some of these problems started to come to a head during the social-media era, before tools like virtual reality become more prominent, because the technology is still not as intense as it probably will be in the future. So as bad as it’s been, as bad as the election interference and the fomenting of ethnic warfare, and the empowering of neo-Nazis, and the bullying — as bad as all of that has been, we might remember ourselves as having been fortunate that it happened when the technology was really just little slabs we carried around in our pockets that we could look at and that could talk to us, or little speakers we could talk to. It wasn’t yet a whole simulated reality that we could inhabit.

Because that will be so much more intense, and that has so much more potential for behavior modification, and fooling people, and controlling people. So things potentially could get a lot worse, and hopefully they’ll get better as a result of our experiences during this era.

As far as what to do differently, I’ve had a particular take on this for a long time that not everybody agrees with. I think the fundamental mistake we made is that we set up the wrong financial incentives, and that’s caused us to turn into jerks and screw around with people too much. Way back in the ’80s, we wanted everything to be free because we were hippie socialists. But we also loved entrepreneurs because we loved Steve Jobs. So you wanna be both a socialist and a libertarian at the same time, and it’s absurd. But that’s the kind of absurdity that Silicon Valley culture has to grapple with.

And there’s only one way to merge the two things, which is what we call the advertising model, where everything’s free but you pay for it by selling ads. But then because the technology gets better and better, the computers get bigger and cheaper, there’s more and more data — what started out as advertising morphed into continuous behavior modification on a mass basis, with everyone under surveillance by their devices and receiving calculated stimulus to modify them. So you end up with this mass behavior-modification empire, which is straight out of Philip K. Dick, or from earlier generations, from 1984.

It’s this thing that we were warned about. It’s this thing that we knew could happen. Norbert Wiener, who coined the term cybernetics, warned about it as a possibility. And despite all the warnings, and despite all of the cautions, we just walked right into it, and we created mass behavior-modification regimes out of our digital networks. We did it out of this desire to be both cool socialists and cool libertarians at the same time.

This dovetails with something you’ve said in the past that’s with me, which is your phrase Digital Maoism. Do you think that the Digital Maoism that you described years ago — are those the people who run Silicon Valley today?

I was talking about a few different things at the time I wrote “Digital Maoism.” One of them was the way that we were centralizing culture, even though the rhetoric was that we were distributing it. Before Wikipedia, I think it would have been viewed as being this horrible thing to say that there could only be one encyclopedia, and that there would be one dominant entry for a given topic. Instead, there were different encyclopedias. There would be variations not so much in what facts were presented, but in the way they were presented. That voice was a real thing.

And then we moved to this idea that we have a single dominant encyclopedia that was supposed to be the truth for the global AI or something like that. But there’s something deeply pernicious about that. So we’re saying anybody can write for Wikipedia, so it’s, like, purely democratic and it’s this wonderful open thing, and yet the bizarreness is that that open democratic process is on the surface of something that struck me as being Maoist, which is that there’s this one point of view that’s then gonna be the official one.

And then I also noticed that that process of people being put into a global system in which they’re supposed to work together toward some sort of dominating megabrain that’s the one truth didn’t seem to bring out the best in people, that people turned aggressive and mean-spirited when they interacted in that context. I had worked on some content for Britannica years and years ago, and I never experienced the kind of just petty meanness that’s just commonplace in everything about the internet. Among many other places, on Wikipedia.

On the one hand, you have this very open collective process actually in the service of this very domineering global brain, destroyer of local interpretation, destroyer of individual voice process. And then you also have this thing that seems to bring out this meanness in people, where people get into this kind of mob mentality and they become unkind to each other. And those two things have happened all over the internet; they’re both very present in Facebook, everywhere. And it’s a bit of a subtle debate, and it takes a while to work through it with somebody who doesn’t see what I’m talking about. That was what I was talking about.

But then there’s this other thing about the centralization of economic power. What happened with Maoists and with communists in general, and neo-Marxists and all kinds of similar movements, is that on the surface, you say everybody shares, everybody’s equal, we’re not gonna have this capitalist concentration. But then there’s some other entity that might not look like traditional capitalism, but is effectively some kind of robber baron that actually owns everything, some kind of Communist Party actually controls everything, and you have just a very small number of individuals who become hyperempowered and everybody else loses power.

And exactly the same thing has happened with the supposed openness of the internet, where you say, “Isn’t it wonderful, with Facebook and Twitter anybody can express themselves. Everybody’s an equal, everybody’s empowered.” But in fact, we’re in a period of time of extreme concentration of wealth and power, and it’s precisely around those who run the biggest computers. So the truth and the effect is just the opposite of what the rhetoric is and the immediate experience.

A lot of people were furious with me over Digital Maoism and felt that I had betrayed our cause or something, and I lost some friends over it. And some of it was actually hard. But I fail to see how it was anything but accurate. I don’t wanna brag, but I think I was just right. I think that that’s what was going on and that’s what’s happening in China. But what’s worse is that it’s happening elsewhere.

The thing is, I’m not sure that what’s going on in the U.S. is that distinct from what’s going on in China. I think there are some differences, but they’re in degree; they’re not stark. The Chinese are saying if you have a low social rating you can’t get on the subway, but on the other hand, we’re doing algorithmic profiling that’s sending people to jail, and we know that the algorithms are racist. Are we really that much better?

I’m not really sure. I think it would be hard to determine it. But I think we’re doing many of the same things; it’s just that we package them in a slightly different way when we tell stories to ourselves.

This is something I write about, you know I have another book coming out shortly?

Yeah, that was gonna be where I took this next.

One of the things that I’ve been concerned about is this illusion where you think that you’re in this super-democratic open thing, but actually it’s exactly the opposite; it’s actually creating a super concentration of wealth and power, and disempowering you. This has been particularly cruel politically. Every time there’s some movement, like the Black Lives Matter movement, or maybe now the March for Our Lives movement, or #MeToo, or very classically the Arab Spring, you have this initial period where people feel like they’re on this magic-carpet ride and that social media is letting them broadcast their opinions for very low cost, and that they’re able to reach people and organize faster than ever before. And they’re thinking, Wow, Facebook and Twitter are these wonderful tools of democracy.

But then the algorithms have to maximize value from all the data that’s coming in. So they test use that data. And it just turns out as a matter of course, that the same data that is a positive, constructive process for the people who generated it — Black Lives Matter, or the Arab Spring — can be used to irritate other groups. And unfortunately there’s this asymmetry in human emotions where the negative emotions of fear and hatred and paranoia and resentment come up faster, more cheaply, and they’re harder to dispel than the positive emotions. So what happens is, every time there’s some positive motion in these networks, the negative reaction is actually more powerful. So when you have a Black Lives Matter, the result of that is the empowerment of the worst racists and neo-Nazis in a way that hasn’t been seen in generations. When you have an Arab Spring, the result ultimately is the network empowerment of ISIS and other extremists — bloodthirsty, horrible things, the likes of which haven’t been seen in the Arab world or in Islam for years, if ever.

Black Lives Matter has incredible visibility, but the reality is that even though it has had an enormous effect on the discursive level, and at making the country fixated on this conversation, that’s distinct from political force necessary to effect that change. What do you think about the sort of gap between what Silicon Valley platforms have promised in that respect and then the material reality?

That observation — that social-media politics is all talk and no action or something, or that it’s empty — is compatible with, but a little bit different from, what I was saying. I’m saying that it empowers its opposite more than the original good intention. And those two things can both be true at once, but I just wanna point out that they’re two different explanations for why nothing decent seems to come out in the end.

I want to be wrong. I especially wanna be wrong about the March for Our Lives kids. I really wanna be wrong about them. I want them to not fall into this because they’re our hope, they’re the future of our country, so I very deeply, profoundly wanna be wrong. I don’t want their social-media data to empower the opposite movement that ends up being more powerful because negative emotions are more powerful. I just wanna be wrong. I so wanna be telling you bullshit right now.

So far it’s been right, but that doesn’t mean it will continue to be. So please let me be wrong.

Platforms seem trapped in this fundamental tension, and I’m just not sure how they break out of that.

My feeling is that if the theory is correct that we got into this by trying to be socialist and libertarian at the same time, and getting the worst of both worlds, then we have to choose. You either have to say, “Okay, Facebook is not going to be a business anymore. We said we wanted to create this thing to connect people, but we’re actually making the world worse, so we’re not gonna allow people to advertise on it; we’re not gonna allow anybody to have any influence on your feed but you. This is all about you. We’re gonna turn it into a nonprofit; we’re gonna give it to each country; it’ll be nationalized. We’ll do some final stock things so all the people who contributed to it will be rich beyond their dreams. But then after that it’s done; it’s not a business. We’ll buy back everybody’s stock and it’s done. It’s over. That’s it.”

[Blogger note: this choice between socialism and libertarianism is a highly interesting and crucial question, but I don’t think there’s one answer. Facebook strikes me as a dysfunctional idea from the beginning. Social interaction doesn’t scale, data networks scale. A global gossip network like Facebook makes almost no sense. I suspect FB will be competed down to many different functional social media models rather than one concentrated behemoth. Something like search. or Wikipedia seems rather different in nature. Google Search looks more and more like a public good, which means it is likely to become a regulated public utility. It’s not exactly clear how search works as a public utility, but I think the political imperative is already there.]

That’s one option. So it just turns into a socialist enterprise; we let it be nationalized and it’s gone. The other option is to monetize it. And that’s the one that I’m personally more interested in. And what that would look like is, we’d ask those who can afford to — which would be a lot of people in the world, certainly most people in the West — to start paying for it. And then we’d also pay people who provide data into it that’s exceptionally valuable to the network, and it would become a source of economic growth. And we would outlaw advertising on it. There would no longer be third parties paying to influence you.

Because as long as you have advertising, you have this perverse incentive to make it manipulative. You can’t have a behavior-modification machine with advertisers and have anything ethical; it’s not possible. You could get away with it barely with television because television wasn’t as effective at modifying people. But this, there’s no ethical way to have advertising.

So you’d ban advertising, and you’d start paying people, a subset of people; a minority of people would start earning their living because they just do stuff that other people love to look at over Facebook or the other social networks, or YouTube for that matter. And then most people would pay into it in the same way that we pay into something like Netflix or HBO Now.

And one of the things I wanna point out is that back at the time when Facebook was founded, the belief was that in the future there wouldn’t be paid people making movies and television because armies of unpaid volunteers organized through our network schemes would make superior content, just like what happened with Wikipedia. But what actually happened is, when people started paying for Netflix, we got what we call Peak TV — things got much better as a result of it being monetized.

So I think if we had a situation where people were paying for something like Facebook, and being paid for it, and advertising was absolutely outlawed, the only customer would be the user, there would be no other customer. If we got into that situation, I think we have at least a chance of achieving Peak Social Media, just like we achieved Peak TV. We might actually see things improve a great deal.

So that’s the solution that I think is better. But we can’t do this combination of libertarian and communist ideology. It just doesn’t work. You have to choose one.

You’ve written this book, Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts. I don’t want to make you summarize the whole book, but I want to ask what you thought was the most urgent argument, and to explain why.
Okay. By the way, it’s … For Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now.

Right now! So the whole thing is already urgent, so which of these urgent pleas do you believe to be the most pressing?

There’s one that’s a little complicated, which is the last one. Because I have the one about politics, and I have the one about economics. That it’s ruining politics, it’s empowering the most obnoxious people to be the most powerful inherently, and that’s destroying the world. I have the one about economics, how it’s centralizing wealth even while it seems to be democratizing it. I have the one about how it makes you feel sad; I have all these different ones.

But at the end, I have one that’s a spiritual one. The argument is that social media hates your soul. And it suggests that there’s a whole spiritual, religious belief system along with social media like Facebook that I think people don’t like. And it’s also fucking phony and false. It suggests that life is some kind of optimization, like you’re supposed to be struggling to get more followers and friends. Zuckerberg even talked about how the new goal of Facebook would be to give everybody a meaningful life, as if something about Facebook is where the meaning of life is.

It suggests that you’re just a cog in a giant global brain or something like that. The rhetoric from the companies is often about AI, that what they’re really doing — like YouTube’s parent company, Google, says what they really are is building the giant global brain that’ll inherit the earth and they’ll upload you to that brain and then you won’t have to die. It’s very, very religious in the rhetoric. And so it’s turning into this new religion, and it’s a religion that doesn’t care about you. It’s a religion that’s completely lacking in empathy or any kind of personal acknowledgment. And it’s a bad religion. It’s a nerdy, empty, sterile, ugly, useless religion that’s based on false ideas. And I think that of all of the things, that’s the worst thing about it.

I mean, it’s sort of like a cult of personality. It’s like in North Korea or some regime where the religion is your purpose to serve this one guy. And your purpose is to serve this one system, which happens to be controlled by one guy, in the case of Facebook.

It’s not as blunt and out there, but that is the underlying message of it and it’s ugly and bad. I loathe it, and I think a lot of people have that feeling, but they might not have articulated it or gotten it to the surface because it’s just such a weird and new situation.

On the other hand, there’s a rising backlash that may end the platforms before they have the opportunity to take root and produce yet another vicious problem.

I’m in my late 50s now. I have an 11-year-old daughter, and the thing that bothers me so much is that we’re giving them a world that isn’t as good as the world we received. We’re giving them a world in which their hopes for being able to create a decent, happy, reasonably low-stress life, where they can have their own kids, it’s just not as good as what we were given. We have not done well by them.

And then to say that observing our own mistakes means that you’re old and don’t get it is profoundly counterproductive. It’s really just a way of evading our own responsibility. The truth is that we totally have screwed over younger generations. And that’s a bigger story than just the social-media and tech thing, but the social-media and tech thing is a big part of it. We’ve created a scammy society where we concentrate wealth in ways that are petty and not helpful, and we’ve given them a world of far fewer options than we had. There’s nothing I want more than for the younger people to create successful lives and create a world that they love. I mean, that’s what it’s all about. But to say that the path to that is for them to agree with the thing we made for them is just so self-serving and so obnoxiously narcissistic that it makes me wanna throw up.

This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.

The Asset Divide

Below is a recent article explaining the growing wealth inequality based on asset ownership and control. This shouldn’t even be phrased as a question as our easy credit policies, massive RE debt leverage, and favored housing policy has created an almost insurmountable wealth divide between the asset-rich and the asset-poor. Who and what policies do we think those left behind are going to be voting for? Non-gender bathrooms? See also Thomas Edsall’s article in the NYT.

Is Housing Inequality the Main Driver of Economic Inequality?

Richard Florida

A growing body of research suggests that inequality in the value of Americans’ homes is a major factor—perhaps the key factor—in the country’s economic divides.

Economic inequality is one of the most significant issues facing cities and entire nations today. But a mounting body of research suggests that housing inequality may well be the biggest contributor to our economic divides.

Thomas Piketty’s influential book, Capital in the Twenty-First Century, put economic inequality—and specifically, wealth inequality—front and center in the global conversation. But research by Matthew Rognlie found that housing inequality (that is, how much more expensive some houses are than others) is the key factor in rising wealth.

Rognlie’s research documented that the share of wealth or capital income derived from housing has grown significantly since around 1950, and substantially more than for other forms of capital. In other words, those uber-expensive penthouses, luxury townhomes, and other real estate holdings in superstar cities like London and New York amount to a “physical manifestation” of Piketty’s insights into wealth inequality, as Felix Salmon so aptly puts it.

More recent research on this topic by urban economists David Albouy and Mike Zabek documents the surge in housing inequality in the United States. Their study, published as a National Bureau of Economic Research working paper, charts the rise in housing inequality across the U.S. from the onset of the Great Depression in 1930 through the great suburban boom of the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s, to the more recent back-to-the-city movement, the 2008 economic crash, and the subsequent recovery, up to 2012. They use data from the U.S. Census on both homeowners and renters.

Over the period studied, the share of owner-occupied housing rose from less than half (45 percent) to nearly two-thirds (65 percent), although it has leveled off somewhat since then. The median cost of a home tripled in real dollar terms, according to their analysis. Housing now represents a huge share of America’s total consumption, comprising roughly 40 percent of the U.S. total capital stock, and two-thirds of the wealth held by the middle class.

What Albouy and Zabek find is a clear U-shaped pattern in housing inequality (measured in terms of housing values) over this 80-year period. Housing inequality was high in 1930 at the onset of the Depression. It then declined, alongside income inequality, during the Great Compression and suburban boom of the 1950s and 1960s. It started to creep back up again after the 1970s. There was a huge spike by the 1990s, followed by a leveling off in 2000, and then another significant spike by 2012, in the wake of the recovery from the economic crisis of 2008 and the accelerating back-to-the-city movement.

By 2012, the level of housing inequality in the U.S. looked much the same as it did in the ’30s. Now as then, the most expensive 20 percent of owner-occupied homes account for more than half of total U.S. housing value.

Data by Albouy et al. Design by Madison McVeigh/CityLab

Rents show a different pattern. Rent inequality—or the gap between the cost of rent for some relative than others—was high in the 1930s, then declined dramatically until around 1960. Starting in about 1980, it began to increase gradually, but much less than housing inequality (based on owner-occupied homes) or income inequality. And much of this small rise in rental inequality seems to stem from expensive rental units in very expensive cities.

The study suggests this less severe pattern of rent inequality may be the result of measures like rent control and other affordable housing programs to assist lower-income renters, especially in expensive cities such as New York and San Francisco.

That said, there also is an additional and potentially large wealth gap between owners and renters. Homeowners are able to basically lock in their housing costs after purchasing their home, and benefit from the appreciation of their properties thereafter. Renters, on the other hand, see rents increase in line with the market, and sometimes faster. This threatens their ability to maintain shelter, while they accumulate no equity in the place where they live.

***

But what lies behind this surge in housing inequality? Does it stem from the large housing-price differences between superstar cities and the rest, or does it stem from inequality within cities and metro areas—for instance, high-priced urban areas and suburban areas compared to less advantaged neighborhoods?

The Albouy and Zabek study considers three possible explanations: The change over time from smaller to larger housing units; geographic or spatial inequality between cities and metro areas; and economic segregation between rich and poor within metro areas.

Even as houses have grown bigger and bigger, with McMansions replacing bungalows and Cape Cods in many cities and suburbs since the 1930s (as the size of households shrunk), the study says that, at best, 30 percent of the rise in housing inequality can be pegged to changes in the size of houses themselves.

Ultimately, the study concludes that the rise in both housing wealth and housing inequality stems mainly from the increase in the value of land. In other research, Albouy found that the value of America’s urban land was $25 trillion in 2010, roughly double the nation’s 2016 GDP.

But here’s the kicker: The main catalyst of housing inequality, according to the study, comes from the growing gap within cities and metro areas, not between them. The graph below shows the differences in housing inequality between “commuting zones”—geographic areas that share a labor market—over time. In it, you can see that inequality varies sharply within commuting zones (marked “CZ”) while it remains more or less constant between them.

In other words, the spatial inequality within metros is what drives housing inequality. Factors like safety, schools, and access to employment and local amenities lead individual actors to value one neighborhood over the next.

Data by Albouy et al. Design by Madison McVeigh/CityLab

All this forms a fundamental contradiction in the housing market. Housing is at once a basic mode of shelter and a form of investment. As this basic necessity has been transformed over time into a financial instrument and source of wealth, not only has housing inequality increased, but housing inequality has become a major contributor to—if not the major overall factor in—wealth inequality. When you consider the fact that what is a necessity for everyone has been turned into a financial instrument for a select few, this is no surprise.

The rise in housing inequality brings us face to face with a central paradox of today’s increasingly urbanized form of capitalism. The clustering of talent, industry, investment, and other economic assets in small parts of cities and metropolitan areas is at once the main engine of economic growth and the biggest driver of inequality. The ability to buy and own housing, much more than income or any other source of wealth, is a significant factor in the growing divides between the economy’s winners and losers.

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A Financial Crisis Is Coming?

A provocative article in USNWR. We’ve been warning about unsustainable asset prices built on unsustainable debt leverage for the past 8 years (which only means we were waaaaay too early, but not necessarily wrong!) For all this time we’ve been focused on growing total debt to GDP ratios, which means we’re not getting much bang for all that cheap credit, trying to borrow and spend our way to prosperity.

The PE ratios of equities and housing reflect a disconnect with fundamental values based on decades of market data. For example, one cannot really pay 8-10x income on residential housing for long, or pay near to 50% of income on rents, as many are doing in our most pricey cities.

Nose-bleed asset prices on everything from yachts to vacation homes to art and collectibles to technology stocks and cryptocurrencies are indicative of excessive global liquidity. Soaking up that liquidity to return to long-term trend lines will be a long, jarring process. Nobody really knows whence comes the reckoning since we have perfected a particularly successful strategy of kicking the can down the road.

A Crisis Is Coming

All the ingredients are in place for a catastrophic economic and financial market crisis.

By Desmond Lachman Opinion Contributor USNWR, Feb. 14, 2018, at 7:00 a.m.

MY LONG CAREER AS A macro-economist both at the IMF and on Wall Street has taught me that it is very well to make bold macroeconomic calls as long as you do not specify a time period within which those calls will occur. However, there are occasions, such as today, when the overwhelming evidence suggests that a major economic event will occur within a relatively short time period. On those occasions, it is very difficult to resist making a time-sensitive bold economic call.

 

So here goes. By this time next year, we will have had another 2008-2009 style global economic and financial market crisis. And we will do so despite Janet Yellen’s recent reassurances that we would not have another such crisis within her lifetime.

 

There are two basic reasons to fear another full-blown global economic crisis soon: The first is that we have in place all the ingredients for such a crisis. The second is that due to major economic policy mistakes by both the Federal Reserve and the U.S. administration, the U.S. economy is in danger of soon overheating, which will bring inflation in its wake. That in turn is all too likely to lead to rising interest rates, which could very well be the trigger that bursts the all too many asset price bubbles around the world.

A key ingredient for a global economic crisis is asset price bubbles and credit risk mispricing. On that score, today’s financial market situation would appear to be very much more concerning than that on the eve of the September 2008 Lehman-bankruptcy. Whereas then, asset price bubbles were largely confined to the U.S. housing and credit markets, today, asset price bubbles are more pervasive being all too much in evidence around the globe.

 

It is not simply that global equity valuations today are at lofty levels experienced only three times in the last one hundred years. It is also that we have a global government bond market bubble, the serious mispricing of credit risk in the world’s high yield and emerging market corporate-bond markets and troublesome housing bubbles in major economies like Canada, China, and the United Kingdom.

 

Another key ingredient for a global economic crisis is a very high debt level. Here too today’s situation has to be very concerning. According to IMF estimates, today the global debt-to-GDP level is significantly higher than it was in 2008. Particularly concerning has to be the fact that far from declining, over the past few years Italy’s public debt has risen now to 135 percent of GDP. That has to raise the real risk that we could have yet another round of the Eurozone debt crisis in the event that we were to have another global economic recession.

 

Today’s asset price bubbles have been created by many years of unusually easy global monetary policy. The persistence of those bubbles can only be rationalized on the assumption that interest rates will remain indefinitely at their currently very low levels. Sadly, there is every reason to believe that at least in the United States, the period of low interest rates is about to end abruptly due to an overheated economy.

The reason for fearing that the U.S. economy will soon overheat is not simply that it is currently at or very close to full employment and growing at a healthy clip. It is rather that it is also now getting an extraordinary degree of monetary and fiscal policy stimulus at this very late stage of the cycle.

Today, U.S. financial conditions are at their most expansionary levels in the past 40 years due to the combination of very low interest rates, inflated equity prices and a weak dollar. Compounding matters is the fact that the U.S. economy is now receiving a significant pro-cyclical boost from the unfunded Trump tax cut and from last week’s two-year congressional spending pact aimed at boosting military and disaster-relief spending.

 

Today, in the face of an overheated U.S. economy, the Federal Reserve has an unenviable choice. It can either raise its interest rate and risk bursting the global asset price bubble, or it can delay its interests rate decision and risk incurring the wrath of the bond vigilantes who might sense that the Federal Reserve is not serious about inflation risk. In that event, interest rates are apt to rise in a disorderly fashion, which could lead to the more abrupt deflating of the global asset bubble.

 

This time next year, it could very well turn out that today’s asset price bubbles will not have burst and we will not have been thrown into another global economic recession. In which event, I will admit that I was wrong in having been too pessimistic about the global economic outlook. However, I will fall back on the defense that all of the clues were pointing in the opposite direction.

Order vs. Chaos: How We Choose

(The Towers of San Gimignano)

Below is a thought-provoking essay by historian Niall Ferguson examining the fluid structure of societies that swing from hierarchies to decentralized networks.

Anyway, this is a subject dear to my heart, as it is the overriding theme of several of my fiction books. See interjections below…

In Praise of Hierarchy – The Wall Street Journal
https://apple.news/A3UEyEvI-SnuHNdt8fLLjzg (paywall)

The Saturday Essay
Established, traditional order is under assault from freewheeling, networked disrupters as never before. But society craves centralized leadership, too.

It is a truth universally acknowledged that we now live in a networked world, where everyone and everything are connected. The corollary is that traditional hierarchical structures—not only states, but also churches, parties, and corporations—are in various states of crisis and decline. Disruption, disintermediation, and decentralization are the orders of the day. Hierarchy is at a discount, if not despised.

Networks rule not only in the realm of business. In politics, too, party establishments and their machines have been displaced by crowdfunded campaigns and viral messaging. Money, once a monopoly of the state, is being challenged by Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies, which require no central banks to manage them, only consensus algorithms.

But is all this wise? In all the excitement of the age of hyper-connection, have we perhaps forgotten why hierarchies came into existence in the first place? Do we perhaps overestimate what can be achieved by ungoverned networks—and underestimate the perils of a world without any legitimate hierarchical structure?

True, few dare shed tears for yesterday’s hierarchies. Some Anglophile viewers of “The Crown” may thrill at the quaint stratification of Elizabeth II’s England, but the nearest approximations to royalty in America have lately been shorn of their gilt and glamour. Political dynasties of the recent past have been effaced, if not humiliated, by the upstart Donald Trump, while Hollywood’s elite of exploitative men is in disarray. The spirit of the age is revolutionary; the networked crowd yearns to “smack down” or “shame” each and every authority figure.

Nevertheless, recent events have called into question the notion that all will be for the best in the most networked of all possible worlds. “I thought once everybody could speak freely and exchange information and ideas, the world is automatically going to be a better place,” Evan Williams, a co-founder of Twitter, told the New York Times last May. “I was wrong about that.”

Far from being a utopia in which we all become equally empowered “netizens,” free to tweet truth to power, cyberspace has mutated into a nightmare realm of ideological polarization, extreme views and fake news. The year 2016 was the annus horribilis of the liberal internet, the year when the network platforms built in Silicon Valley were used not only by Donald Trump’s election campaign but also by the proponents of “Brexit” in the United Kingdom to ends that appalled their creators. In 2017, research (including some by Facebook itself) revealed the psychological harm inflicted by social media on young people, who become addicted to the network platforms’ incessant, targeted stimuli.

Most alarming was the morphing of cyberspace into Cyberia, not to mention the Cyber-caliphate: a dark and lawless realm where malevolent actors ranging from Russian trolls to pro-ISIS Twitter users could work with impunity to subvert the institutional foundations of democracy. As Henry Kissinger has rightly observed, the internet has re-created the human state of nature depicted by 17th-century English philosopher Thomas Hobbes, where there rages a war “of every man against every man” and life (like so many political tweets) is “nasty, brutish, and short.”

We should not be surprised. Neither history nor science predicted that everything would be awesome in a world of giant, online networks—quite the contrary. And now that it becomes clear that a networked world may be an anarchic world, we begin to see—as previous generations saw—the benefits of hierarchy.

The word hierarchy derives from ancient Greek (hierarchia, literally the “rule of a high priest”) and was first used to describe the heavenly orders of angels and, more generally, to characterize a stratified order of spiritual or temporal governance. Up until the 16th century, by contrast, the word “network” signified nothing more than a woven mesh made of interlaced thread.

For most of history, hierarchies dominated social networks, a relationship exemplified by the looming Gothic tower that overshadows the Tuscan town of Siena’s central piazza.

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Siena’s torre

This is roughly how most people think about hierarchies: as vertically structured organizations characterized by centralized and top-down command, control and communication. Historically, they began with family-based clans and tribes, out of which more complicated and stratified institutions evolved: states, churches, corporations, empires.

The crucial incentive that favored hierarchical order was that it made the exercise of power more efficient. Centralizing control in the hands of the “big man” eliminated or at least reduced time-consuming arguments about what to do, which might at any time escalate into internecine conflict. The obvious defect of hierarchy—in the mid-19th century words of Lord Acton, “power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely”—was not by itself sufficient to turn humanity away from the rule of “big men.”

There have been only two eras of enhanced connectedness, when new technology helped social networks gain the upper hand. The second is our own age. The first began almost exactly half a millennium ago, in 1517, and lasted for the better part of three centuries.

COM2014-tiny FB cover

The epic story of chaos vs. order during the Savonarola-Machiavelli era, foreshadowing Martin Luther.

When the printing press empowered Martin Luther’s heresy, a network was born. Luther’s dream was of a “priesthood of all believers.” The actual result of the Reformation he inspired was not harmony, but 130 years of polarization and conflict. But it proved impossible to kill Protestant networks, even with mass executions. Hierarchy had to be restored in the form of the princely states whose power the Peace of Westphalia affirmed, but this restoration was fleeting.

Like the Reformation, the 18th-century Enlightenment was a network-driven phenomenon that challenged established authority. The amazing thing was how much further the tendrils of the Enlightenment extended: as far afield as Voltaire’s global network of correspondents, and into the depths of Bavaria, where the secret network known as the Illuminati was founded in 1776.

In Britain’s American colonies, Freemasonry was a key network that connected many of the Founding Fathers, including George Washington and the crucial “node” in the New England revolutionary network, Paul Revere.

IGWT Cover12 6x9 large 2017

Freemasons in today’s Washington, D.C.?

At the same time, the American revolutionaries—Franklin, Jefferson, Lafayette—had all kinds of connections to France, land of the philosophes. The problem in France was that the ideas that went viral were not just “liberty, equality and fraternity,” but also the principle that terror was justifiable against enemies of the people. The result was a descent into bloody anarchy.

 

Those who lived through the wars of the 1790s and early 1800s learned an important lesson that we would do well to relearn: unless one wishes to reap one revolutionary whirlwind after another, it is better to impose some kind of hierarchical order on the world and to give it some legitimacy. At the Congress of Vienna, the five great powers who defeated Napoleon agreed to establish such an order, and the “pentarchy” they formed provided a remarkable stability over the century that followed.

Just over 200 years later, we confront a similar dilemma. Those who favor a revolutionary world run by networks will end up not with the interconnected utopia of their dreams but with Hobbes’s state of nature, in which malign actors exploit opportunities to spread virus-like memes and mendacities. Worse, they may end up entrenching a new but unaccountable hierarchy. For here is a truth that is too often glossed over by the proponents of networked governance: Many networks are hierarchically structured.

Nothing illustrates this better than the way the internet has evolved from being an authentically distributed, decentralized network into one dominated by a few giant technology companies: Facebook, Amazon, Netflix and Alphabet’s Google—the so-called FANGs. This new hierarchy is motivated primarily by the desire to sell—above all, to sell the data that their users provide. Dominance of online advertising by Alphabet and Facebook, coupled with immunity from civil liability under legislation dating back to the 1990s, have create an extraordinary state of affairs. The biggest content publishers in history are regulated as if they are mere technology startups; they are a new hierarchy extracting rent from the network.

The effects are pernicious. According to the Pew Research Center, close to half of Americans now get their news from Facebook, whose incentive is to promote news that holds the attention of users, regardless of whether it is true or false, researched by professional journalists or cooked up by Russian trolls. Established publishers—and parties—were too powerful for too long, but is it really a better world if there are no authorities to separate real news from fake, or decent political candidates from rogues? The old public sphere had its defects, but the new one has no effective gatekeepers, so the advantage now lies not with leaders but with misleaders.

The alternative is that another pentarchy of great powers recognizes their common interest in resisting the threat posed by Cyberia, where jihadism and criminality flourish alongside cyberwarfare, to say nothing of nuclear proliferation. Conveniently, the architects of the post-1945 order created the institutional basis for such a new pentarchy in the form of the permanent members of the United Nations Security Council, an institution that retains the all-important ingredient of legitimacy, despite its gridlocked condition throughout the Cold War.

It is easy to be dismissive of the UNSC. Nevertheless, whether or not these five great powers can make common cause once again, as their predecessors did in the 19th century, is a great geopolitical question of our time. The hierarchical Chinese leader Xi Jinping likes to talk about a “new model of great power relations,” and it may be that the North Korean missile crisis will bring forth this new model. But the crucial point is that the North Korean threat cannot be removed by the action of networks. A Facebook group can no more solve it than a tweet storm or a hashtag.

Our age may venerate online networks, to the extent of making a company such as Facebook one of the most valuable in the world. Yet there is a reason why armies have commanding officers. There is a reason why orchestras have conductors. There is a reason why, at great universities, the lecturers are not howled down by social justice warriors. And there is a reason why the last great experiment in networked organization—the one that began with the Reformation—ended, eventually, with a restoration of hierarchy.

There is hope for hierarchies yet. “The Crown” is not mere fiction; the hierarchy of the monarchy has continued to elevate the head of the British state above party politics. In a similar way, the papacy remains an object of authority and veneration, despite the tribulations of the Roman Catholic Church. Revolutions repeatedly sweep the countries of the Middle East, yet the monarchies of the region have been the most stable regimes.

Even in the U.S., ground zero for disruptive networks, there still is respect for hierarchical institutions. True, just 32% of Americans still have “a great deal” or “quite a lot” of confidence in the presidency and 12% feel that way about Congress. But for the military the equivalent percentage is 72% (up from 50% in 1981), for the police it is 57%, for churches 41%, and for the Supreme Court 40%. By comparison, just 16% of Americans have confidence in news on the internet.

We humans have been designed by evolution to network—man is a social animal, of course—but history has taught us to revere hierarchy as preferable to anarchy, and to prefer time-honored hierarchs to upstart usurpers.

Mr. Ferguson’s new book, “The Square and the Tower: Networks and Power, from the Freemasons to Facebook,” will be published by Penguin Press on Jan. 16.