New name, same blog

In late 2009, a little more than a decade ago, I started this blog. It wasn’t my first time blogging, but it was my first sustained effort and I might have started it sooner if it hadn’t been for the difficulty of picking a suitable name. After far too much deliberation, someone close to me suggested “Beyond the times,” which I liked because it captured my interest in the media and in the future.

My subject, as I announced it to quite literally no one, was to cover “The Internet, Information, and the Public Sphere.”

I’ve written more than 350 posts over the intervening years, and a lot has changed since then. When I started, I was writing about the media from outside of it. But almost a year after launching the blog, I wrote a post about dating algorithms, in response to a piece on The Atlantic’s newly launched tech vertical. That led to some contributions to the section, which led to a job reporting on tech for a news startup, which led to jobs at HBR and now Quartz.

Since joining the media eight years ago, I’ve written less about it. I still have lots of opinions about media and journalism, of course. But my writing has focused on innovation and the economy, and today I’m renaming the blog to reflect that.

This blog’s name is now Nonrival, to reflect my current focus on economics and my continued interest in information and innovation.

Most economic goods are “rivalrous,” meaning if one person consumes them then another person can’t. If you and I have an apple, you can eat it or I can eat it or we can split it. We can’t both eat the whole apple. But nonrivalrous goods are different. If I share an idea with you, we both get to enjoy it. If you share it with someone else, it doesn’t take anything away from me. Digital goods are nonrival.* A Netflix episode is more like an idea than an apple. The new name captures my focus not just on the internet but its economic effects.

And to the extent that “nonrival” has any meaning colloquially, it’s one I like, too. One of the topics I blogged about most in the early days was collaboration, and “nonrival” gets at some of that spirit.

I’m hoping to add a Nonrival newsletter soon, too. You can sign up in advance here.

*OK, sure, not totally. Server space and various other physical goods that support digital ones may be rivalrous.

 

Notes on political and social change

Just a post to clip together some resources…

Julie Battilana at Harvard, in SSIR:

In this article, we build on research on social change,1 including our own research,2 for which we studied hundreds of social change initiatives over multiple years and interviewed social entrepreneurs, civil society leaders, and public officials around the world. We identify three distinct roles played by those who participate in movements for social change: agitator, innovator, and orchestrator. An agitator brings the grievances of specific individuals or groups to the forefront of public awareness. An innovator creates an actionable solution3 to address these grievances. And an orchestrator coordinates action across groups, organizations, and sectors to scale the proposed solution. Any pathway to social change requires all three. Agitation without innovation means complaints without ways forward, and innovation without orchestration means ideas without impact.

Four rules for effective protests, from Vox.

Cass Sunstein’s book, How Change Happens.

Wrestling in the china shop

Here’s political scientist Henry Farrell on Tyler Cowen’s podcast:

FARRELL: Analytic Marxism, I think, is underrated. I think it’s going to come back. Now, when I say analytic Marxism, let me be specific about that. There’s a lot of Marx which I think is flat-out wrong. And the analytic Marxist project itself drove itself into a hole. If you look at people like [Jon] Elster, the other people who are strongly committed to it, they eventually ended up figuring that if you wanted to make sense of Marx, you’re going to come to the conclusion that eventually there wasn’t much point, there wasn’t much sense to be made of it.

But nonetheless, the basic underlying idea, which is that if you bring together rationalist perspectives with a direct concern with power relations and a desire to understand power relations in the Marxist and the Weberian way, that this is something which is coming to the fore again, which is extremely valuable.

Somebody else who I think is underrated in this context is Mancur Olson. For example, if you want to understand where Elizabeth Warren is going, you want to go back to Mancur Olson’s book, The Rise and Decline of Nations, because I think what Elizabeth Warren is pursuing is very much an Olsonian view of how markets work: that drag and dross and corruption builds up and that in order to allow markets to achieve their full potential, you basically need to cleanse them at a certain point.

I picked up Olson’s The Rise and Decline of Nations on that recommendation, and want to post a few notes from it. He helpfully summarizes his own argument on page 74 (more books should do this!):

Implications

  1. There will be no countries that attain symmetrical organization of all groups with a common interest and thereby attain optimal outcomes through comprehensive bargaining.
  2. Stable societies with unchanged boundaries ten to accumulate more collusions and organizations for collective action over time.
  3. Members of ‘small’ groups have disproportionate organizational power for collective action, and this disproportion diminishes but does not disappear over time in stable societies.
  4. On balance, special-interest organizations and collusions reduce efficiency and aggregate income in the societies in which they operate and make political life more divisive.
  5. Encompassing organizations have some incentive to make the society in which they operate more prosperous, and an incentive to redistribute income to their members with as little excess burden as possible, and to cease such redistribution unless the amount redistributed is substantial in relation to the social cost of the redistribution.
  6. Distributional coalitions make decisions more slowly than the individuals and firms of which they are comprised, tend to have crowded agendas and bargaining tables, and more often fix prices than quantities.
  7. Distributional coalitions slow down a society’s capacity to adopt new technologies and to reallocate resources in response to changing conditions, and thereby reduce the rate of economic growth.
  8. Distributional coalitions, once big enough to succeed, are exclusive, and seek to limit the diversity of incomes and values of their membership.
  9. The accumulation of distributional coalitions increases the complexity of regulation, the role of government, and the complexity of understandings, and changes the direction of social evolution.

And:

The typical organization for collective action will do nothing to eliminate the social loss or ‘public bad’ its effort to get a larger share of the social output brings about. The familiar image of the slicing of the social pie does not really capture the essence of the situation; it is perhaps better to think of wrestlers struggling over the contents of a china shop. (p. 43-44)

And:

To borrow an evocative phrase from Marx, there is an “internal contradiction” in the development of stable societies. This is not the contradiction that Marx claimed to have found, but rather an inherent conflict between the colossal economic and political advantages of peace and stability and the longer-term losses that come from the accumulating networks of distributional coalitions that can survive only in stable environments. (p. 145)

Pretty much every step in this argument can be contested, starting with Olson’s core idea that collective action is harder with larger groups. Nonetheless, it was a very worthwhile recommendation.

 

A good paragraph on theory

From Hans Morgenthau’s classic text on international relations, Politics among Nations: The Struggle for Power and Peace:

The theory, in other words, must be judged not by some preconceived abstract principle or concept unrelated to reality, but by its purpose: to bring order and meaning to a mass of phenomena which without it would remain disconnected and unintelligible. It must meet a dual test, an empirical and a logical one: Do the facts as they actually are lend themselves to the interpretation the theory has put upon them, and do the conclusions at which the theory arrives follow with logical necessity from its premises? In short, is the theory consistent with the facts and within itself?

Here are a few posts I’ve done on theories, models, and evidence:

Nested markets

In the new Foreign Affairs, Felix Salmon reviews Darkness by Design: The Hidden Power in Global Capital Markets, by political scientist Walter Mattli. Salmon and Mattli share the view that more competition among stock exchanges has been bad for financial markets. Here’s Salmon:

Up until that point, the exchange was a mutual society: firms could buy seats, and the exchange was owned by its members. After 2005, it demutualized, stopped selling seats, and became just one among many exchanges, most of which were owned and operated by enormous global broker-dealers–think Credit Suisse, Goldman Sachs, and Merrill Lynch–that had spent limitless hours and dollars on lobbying the SEC to push Reg NMS through. Rather than being a utility owned by its members, the NYSE was now a profit-maximizing entity like all the other exchanges.

There’s a parallel here to today’s tech platforms. They’re big and powerful, and some argue that they should be broken up. But would more (but smaller) platforms be a good thing? Would competition help?

Salmon and Mattlie argue that having a marketplace (the stock market) competing in a market of its own (the market for trades) has lots of downsides. Whatever you think of that in the context of stock exchanges, it’s worth considering for tech. Would competition between mini-Facebooks shift power toward advertisers and, as a result, further erode privacy? What might the mini-Facebooks do in order to win the business of key publishers or to gain access to particular markets?

Of course, none of the tech platforms are currently run as mutual societies. And so the conversation tends to be about either breaking them up to encourage competition, or regulating them as utilities.

But, just for the fun of it, imagine what a mutual society model might look like. What if Twitter were run for the benefit of its users, with major publishers “buying seats” and individual users electing representatives to advance their interests? You can imagine all sorts of reasons that might not work. (A version of this has been proposed.) But as Salmon and Mattlie suggest, counting on competition between platforms isn’t always a good thing either.

Paying for the right to link

“The News Corp arrangement would allow headlines from properties in its Dow Jones unit… to appear in the Facebook news section, linking to the publications’ sites. For nonsubscribers, links to Journal stories that are behind the site’s paywall would trigger a prompt for the reader to sign up.”

Facebook is apparently paying publishers for the right to link to their stuff. Is that a good thing? Of course, it’s good for publishers to get revenue from quality reporting. But since when do you have to pay to link to content? Why would Facebook suddenly do that? One theory is they’re simply paying for reputation. They want the media to think better of them and trying to undo the damage they’ve done to journalism’s business model is one way to do that. But the alternative is scarier. If paying to link became the norm, Facebook is one of the few organizations well-heeled enough (and with enough bargaining power) to pull it off. The blogger, the independent newsletter writer, the small-time magazine — none of them can afford to pay to link to The Wall Street Journal.

I’d love to see Facebook paying news organizations for syndication rights to the content itself. But there’s a reason we don’t require payment to link (in the U.S. at least). It’d be bad for the internet, good for Facebook, and it’s unlikely to solve journalism’s business model problem.

A good paragraph on management

This comes from Rebecca Henderson, professor at Harvard Business School, in a 2017 talk on the future of capitalism:

The intuition is that we pretty much know there’s a better way to manage the firm. It involves high trust, work groups, communication, high integrity, treating people with respect, doing continuous improvement. Again, I’m telling you nothing new. This is what Toyota brought to the Western world. What we have now is data from thousands of firms across every major nation showing that the correlation between these practices and productivity is very robust.

Some of my previous posts on management are here. More on the work she’s referring to here and here.

She brings this up to ask the question: why don’t these practices diffuse? Here’s her paper offering some answers. Here’s related work.

Opinions, “bias,” explanation, and journalism

Politifact’s Bill Adair writes:

In my courses at Duke, I begin each semester with a diagram I call the “Continuum of Journalism,” which includes a range of journalistic genres: op-eds, investigations, fact-checks, you name it. The continuum could easily be rebranded “The Bias Meter.” At one end is what I’ve labeled “Objective News”—stories that strive to present all points of view. At the other end is “Opinion,” which includes articles by columnists, op-eds, TV and film reviews, and newspaper editorials. Pieces on the “Opinion” end of the spectrum help us to explore our feelings on issues and sharpen our political views; they soften our perspectives, or crystallize them. We like bias in these types of articles, and know to expect it.

I wouldn’t use the term “objective news” to mean what he’s using it to mean. Maybe “straight news reporting” or “traditional news reporting” or something. And that approach, whatever you choose to call it, is not free from bias. But this spectrum is still useful. It’s not bias on the horizontal axis, but the extent to which the author is relying on a process designed to constrain or deemphasize or balance out their own individual assessment. In opinion, the whole point is to offer that assessment. In analysis, it’s the author’s assessment, tempered by a desire to explain competing perspectives from reliable sources. In straight news reporting, that authors’ and editors’ perspectives still play a role (no one is bias free) but the reporter follows a process designed to emphasize established facts that can be clearly attributed. (To better clarify this distinction I’ve been mulling over an analogy to regularization in machine learning. I’ll try and write that up soon.)

Here are some of my posts on similar topics:

Related(ish), and something I liked a lot from a while back… Here’s Matt Yglesias on a podcast explaining explanatory journalism:

“Oftentimes to really understand the news story that just gets on your radar you have to know some things that happened months ago or days ago… Explanation is about surfacing all of that amassed knowledge that the obsessive has and then organizing it so it makes sense to an intelligent, curious person who doesn’t happen to have been following this for a long time… If you ask someone who is very well versed in a subject to explain what is going on, that person is going to offer their view. Now, hopefully they will offer it in a fair-minded way, in a calm way, they will be persuasive, they will have evidence, they might even tell you that some other knowledgable people have a different perspective on it. But if you are knowledgable and you are explaining something to someone, it’s kind of crazy to try to hive off your understanding of what’s actually important and going on here, because otherwise why did we ask you at all?

Putting innovation in the foreground

Four loosely related pieces that I’ve read lately:

A great Quartz profile of economist Mariana Mazzucato:

The central premise of Mazzucato’s work is about the role of the state in innovation. She is an ardent believer that governments should do more than play a passive role in fixing market failures, and be allowed to embrace their entrepreneurial spirit to steer the direction of innovation and economic growth.

The Richmond Fed interviews Enrico Moretti:

In the first three decades after World War II, manufacturing was the most important source of high-paying jobs in the United States. Manufacturing was geographically clustered, but the amount of clustering was limited. Over the past 30 years, manufacturing employment has declined, and the innovation sector has become a key source of good jobs. The innovation sector tends to be much more geographically clustered. Thus, in the past, having access to good jobs was not tied to a specific location as much as it is today. I expect the difference in wages, earnings, and household incomes across cities to continue growing at least for the foreseeable future.

In The Atlantic Tyler Cowen and Patrick Collison call for the creation of an interdisciplinary field called “Progress Studies”:

Progress itself is understudied. By “progress,” we mean the combination of economic, technological, scientific, cultural, and organizational advancement that has transformed our lives and raised standards of living over the past couple of centuries. For a number of reasons, there is no broad-based intellectual movement focused on understanding the dynamics of progress, or targeting the deeper goal of speeding it up. We believe that it deserves a dedicated field of study. We suggest inaugurating the discipline of “Progress Studies.”

Before digging into what Progress Studies would entail, it’s worth noting that we still need a lot of progress. We haven’t yet cured all diseases; we don’t yet know how to solve climate change; we’re still a very long way from enabling most of the world’s population to live as comfortably as the wealthiest people do today; we don’t yet understand how best to predict or mitigate all kinds of natural disasters; we aren’t yet able to travel as cheaply and quickly as we’d like; we could be far better than we are at educating young people. The list of opportunities for improvement is still extremely long.

And Nick Bloom, John Van Reenen, and Heidi Williams have an article in the Journal of Economic Perspectives on innovation policy:

Innovation is the only way for the most developed countries to secure sustainable long-run productivity growth. For nations farther from the technological frontier, catch-up growth is a viable option, but this cannot be the case for leading-edge economies such as the United States, Japan, and the nations of Western Europe. For countries such as these, what are the most effective policies for stimulating technological innovation? In this article, we take a practical approach to addressing this question. If a policymaker came to us with a fixed budget of financial and political capital to invest in innovation policy, what would we advise?

What all these pieces share, despite quite different topics and philosophies, is their foregrounding of innovation. This is, in my view, an underrated vector along which to categorize thinkers. We tend to obsess over peoples’ ideological perspectives with respect to markets or business or the size of government but we don’t do the same for innovation. We ought to. One of the most underrated divisions in politics, I’d suggest, is the degree to which people prioritize innovation and technological advancement.

Update: Cowen links to a reading list on technological progress.

Update 2: so does Collison.

And another.

A very good paragraph on superstar firms

Neil Irwin, writing at The Atlantic, excerpted from his book How to Win in a Winner-Take-All World:

And among economists, the evidence keeps building that the concentration of major industries among a handful of superstar firms might be connected to deep economic dysfunctions. When there are fewer employers in an industry, for example, they have more power to depress workers’ wages. Big dominant companies might focus more on defending what they have than on generating the kinds of innovations that drive economy-wide productivity growth. And the rise of superstar firms is likely related to the rise of superstar cities and the hollowing out of many local economies.

This is important and persuasive work—much of which I’ve written about in my day job as an economics writer at The New York Times. But in all the piling on, I fear something really important is missing from the conversation. The rise of superstar firms is rooted in fundamental technological and economic shifts that are mostly desirable. And policy changes aimed at limiting the downsides of corporate concentration—an important goal—wouldn’t restore an economy built on local, artisanal companies. They would instead leave us with a slightly larger variety of very big, technologically advanced companies dominating the corporate landscape.

Emphasis mine.

I’m broadly supportive of using public policy to address market power and industry concentration, but within the political sphere calls for those policies seem, in my view, to ignore the point that Irwin makes above.