Yelp, Antitrust, and Google

Google, Amazon, and Facebook are modern-day railroads. The technology companies are three of the few organizations that own and control our modern infrastructure.

Connor Dougherty published a nice look at how Google’s monopolist position impacts the businesses that rely on the infrastructure it owns. Like farmers and railroads before, web service providers like Yelp are effectively dependent on Google’s network and at the mercy of Mountain View. As the recent EU ruling confirmed, Google engaged in anti-competitive behavior that stifles innovation, destroys Yelp, and rewards itself.

Antitrust may seem somewhat obtuse and unimportant, but it may just be the number one issue of our time. It’s one thing to see a distant company like Yelp, who has been accused of similar thuggish behavior, struggle. It’s another to imagine what will happen when Amazon begins openly discriminating against local grocery suppliers to benefit their private label brand.

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Autonomous Taxibots: Who owns the future?

Fast Company recently published an article on the need for public ownership of an autonomous taxi utility. The article makes a case for why cities must own both the network and physical cars of the service. It is definitely worth checking out.

But what “ownership” of a taxibot network actually means is potentially confusing. That’s because a taxibot network will consist of at least three core components: 1) the taxibot fleets; 2) a physical infrastructure that allows the taxibots to communicate with the city, like an elaborate network of Wi-Fi routers; and 3) a set of operating systems and protocols that allows the taxibots to communicate with each other, as well as with other cars on the road.

It makes sense that a city would own both the physical infrastructure and the operating system that allow it to operate. Centralized public ownership would allow both an equitable and standardized system to develop. The standardization would lead to the acceleration of an economy of scale and the cost savings associated with that. I tend to believe that the ownership of taxibot fleets should be left to the market—imagine luxury and budget providers.

Another big issue, and I think the central selling point of a publically owned network: Who owns the data?

Every taxibot will be a node on a network, producing all sorts of data. This data will be valuable for the same reasons that any kind of consumer data is valuable: It can be used to improve products and services (which is a good thing) and market things to people that they may not need (which is a bad thing).

All in all this is a great article. It also begs the question, given the inevitable rise of an autonomous taxi service, why are are smaller cities without existing infrastructure (Milwaukee) still considering investing in costly light rail? Shouldn’t we be looking towards the future?

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Mercantilism: Donald Trump’s Economic Policy

Human dried apricot Donald Trump was born on third and thinks he invented baseball. His followers feel forgotten in modern America. But hidden behind his insane belief that a wall will stop migration and America should ban ¼ of the world’s population are some “interesting” economic policy ideas. Donald Trump’s economic policy is interesting because it’s rooted in ideas from the 1600s that have largely been forgotten or excluded from mainstream economics.
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5 Articles That Explain the Ukrainian Revolution

The world has been on high alert since Russian President Vladimir Putin threw caution to the wind and sent military troops to occupy Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula. This act of aggression coincided with the defection of Ukrainian naval leadership and the seizing of parliamentary buildings by forces loyal to Russia. Many columnist and analysts are predicting a massive global conflict and a potential return to the Cold War era. What we aren’t seeing is a coherent narrative about how the conflict got to this stage. I’ve gone ahead and curated 5 great sources that paint an accurate narrative of the historical, political and strategic framework of the 2014 Ukrainian revolution.

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Income Inequality: Why Conservatives are Wrong

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n 2012 the top 1 percent of Americans took home over 20 percent of the income generated in the country. According to Annie Lowrey of the New York Times, this level of income equality was one of the highest rates since 1913, when the federal income tax became law. Think about that for a minute. Things are more unequal today than when John D. Rockefeller was alive. “That should offend all of us,” President Obama remarked in a December speech addressing the topic.

In a lot of ways income inequality is like climate change. Both are happening, both are exacerbated by our current system, and both threaten to upend the entire world.  Deniers of both situations create an environment where facts become debatable. Despite 97 percent of climate scientists agreeing “that climate-warming trends over the past century are very likely due to human activities,” it is still acceptable for a mainstream American politician to argue if it is even happening. The same holds true for income inequality. “In far too many countries the benefits of growth are being enjoyed by far too few people,” Christine Lagarde a managing director at the IMF told a group at the World Economic Forum. If a leader at an organization whose answer to every economic problem is tax cuts and trade liberalization says income inequality is a problem, it is a problem.

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Obama, Thurgood Marshall and the Importance of a Long Term Vision

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oday marks the 21st anniversary of the death of Thurgood Marshall.  He was a complicated man and perhaps the person most responsible for ending segregation in America; first as Chief Counsel of the NAACP’s Legal Defense Fund and then as a Supreme Court Justice. Marshall had immeasurable courage, once saving an innocent plaintiff from certain execution by interrupting a poker game between the President of the United States and the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. When asked by Marshall to sign a stay of execution Chief Justice Fred Vinson remarked, “I’ll tell you one thing, if you’ve got guts enough to break in on this, I’ve got guts enough to sign it.”

For those interested in learning more about Marshall I’d recommend Gilbert King’s Devil in the Grove a Pulitzer Prize winning investigation into the 1949 Groveland Four Trial. The book offers a history of the civil rights movement, a biography of Thurgood Marshall, and a parallel to Obama’s second term strategy. 1

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verturning 100 plus years of institutional racism needed not only courage, but a legal and strategic genius. Marshall was both. If he found out that a judge liked English precedents he would craft a brief overflowing with English cases from the 1700s. If he needed help from federal officials he would release a well-placed memo condemning communism. If he needed information from a rival he would take them out drinking. “He’d get a lot of outside lawyers together in a room, and he’d be talking and laughing and drinking along with the rest of them and getting everybody relaxed and open, and he’d seem to be having such a good time with them that you wouldn’t think he was listening.” Franklin Williams a former NAACP lawyer turned diplomat later recalled, “But after they’d left, there it all was—he’d had the benefit of all their brains, which was his strategy in the first place.”

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Average is Over and Obama’s New Manufacturing Initiative

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ast week President Obama announced plans to build a high tech industrial institute in Raleigh, North Carolina. The public/academic/private partnership will produce next-generation semiconductors, and is the first of 3 planned manufacturing projects by the Administration. “We’re not going to turn things around overnight,” President Obama told the crowd, but “we are going to start bringing those jobs back to America.” Stump speeches are great, but change happens is in the details, and the details haven’t been answered yet. The News Observer reported that specifics of the agreement “remain to be worked out in contract negotiations.”

One thing is clear, American manufacturing has been devastated in the last 20 years. The cause differs depending on which side of the political isle you stand, but it is hard not to believe that poor policy hastened the decline. According to a 2012 Yale study, the establishment of normal trade relations with China directly contributed to America shedding about 6 million manufacturing jobs from 1970 to 2007. Others  argue about labor unions killed the factory, technology hastened the death, and  the  gravity of globalization made the preceeding two irrelevant. The simple fact is that America is now defined by cheap consumer goods, rising structural costs (healthcare and infrastructure) and stagnant incomes. “You have an economy,” Obama told  The New Yorker in January 2014“that is ruthlessly squeezing workers and imposing efficiencies that make our flat-screen TVs really cheap but also puts enormous downward pressure on wages and salaries.”

What do we do about it?

We start by turning one of the causes of the decline into the solution.

Essentially all economists agree that technology hastened the decline of American industrial labor, in fact I’d argue that most middle class jobs will be either replaced or supplemented by computers in the next twenty years. This is not unique to America or to modern information technology. Just as IT made many factory jobs expendable, the car killed horseshoe makers, and the cotton gin decimated hand weavers. In his latest book Average is Over, Economist Tyler Cowen chronicles the increased inequality of the American labor market, with a special focus on the impact of smart machines. Technology has replaced a large amount of middle class jobs with service jobs, and his underlying assumption is that artificial intelligence will do the same to accountants, lawyers and factory workers. The key questions facing future employees will be:

Are you good at working with intelligent machines or not? Are your skills a complement to the skills of the computer, or is the computer doing better without you? Worst of all, are you competing against the computer? Are computers helping people in China and India compete against you?

It is early, but these questions have not been answered yet. Will this initiative place workers in tandem with smart machines or in competition? If production and not analysis is the goal (Cowen argues that smart machines will eventually be used as a guide to production, where workers take a computer’s analysis into consideration but make the final decision), we may be jumping head first into a commodity pricing. The last 20 years have shown what happens when we tried to compete on price with humans. We can’t expect to win the battle against a computer.

Why Edward Snowden is Only the Begining

Institutions need to evolve. “Spy Kids” by Charles Stross explains how the US created a bureaucratic culture that impedes that evolution. “We fool ourselves into thinking that our national culture is static and slow moving,” writes Stross. He argues that the government, specifically the security agencies, are designed for a culture of long term employment–Unfortunately that clearly doesn’t exist anymore. Longterm employment begets loyalty, but through a combination of temp workers and outsourcing nearly every aspect of our society has changed, and security work is no exception. Snowden didn’t collect a paycheck from the NSA; he got one from Booz Allen. The only loyalty he had was to an ideal of nationalism, one that he viewed the very programs he exposed violated.

“If I were in charge of long-term planning for human resources in any government department, I’d be panicking,” he concluded, “Even though it’s already too late.”

Source: Charles Stross – Foreign Policy

Chuck Hagel’s Foreign Policy Roadmap

In 2004 Chuck Hagel, Obama’s current nominee for Secretary of Defense, outlined his foreign policy vision. Writing for Foreign Affairs Hagel looked more like Madeline Albright or William Coehn than Dick Cheney.  In fact, his support for international organizations is downright giddy. “The UN is more relevant today than it has ever been,” he wrote to the chagrin of Republicans everywhere. “The global challenges of terrorism, proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, hunger, disease, and poverty require multilateral responses and initiatives.”

Source: Republic Foreign Policy