"ben thompson"

The essential Ben Thompson on isolation and quarantine

…while I have written about Taiwan’s use of cellphone-enforced quarantines for recent travelers and close contacts of those infected, I should also note that every single positive infection — symptomatic or not — is isolated away from their home and family. That is also the case in South Korea, and while it was the case for Singaporean citizens, it was not the case for migrant workers, which is a major reason why the virus has exploded in recent weeks.

Here’s the thing, though: isolating people is hard. It would be very controversial. It would require overbearing police powers that people in the West are intrinsically allergic to. Politicians that instituted such a policy would be very unpopular. It is so much easier to let tech companies build a potential magic bullet, and then demand they let government use it; most people wouldn’t know or wouldn’t care, which appears to matter more than whether or not the approach would actually work (or, to put it another way, it appears that the French government sees privacy as a club with which to beat tech companies, not a non-negotiable principle their citizens demand).

So that is why I have changed my mind: Western governments are not willing to take actions that we know work because it would be unpopular and controversial (indeed, the fact that central quarantine is so clearly a violation of liberties is arguably a benefit, because there is no way people would tolerate it once the crisis is over). And, on the flipside, that makes digital surveillance too dangerous to build. Politicians would rather leverage tech companies to violate liberty on the sly, and tech companies, once they have the capability, are all too willing to offload the responsibility of using it wisely to whatever government entity is willing to give them cover. There just isn’t much evidence that either side is willing to make hard choices.

That is from Ben’s Stratechery email newsletter, gated but you can pay to get it.  There is currently the risk that “test and trace” becomes for the Left what “chloroquine” has been for Trump and parts of the political right — namely a way to make otherwise unpalatable plans sound as if they have hope for more than “develop herd immunity and bankrupt the economy in the process.”

To be clear, I fully favor “test and trace,” and I’ve worked hard to help fund some of it.  That said, I wonder if we will anytime soon reach the point where it is a game changer.  So when people argue we should not reopen the economy until “test and trace” is in place, I increasingly see that as a kind of emotive declaration that others do not care enough about human lives (possibly true!), rather than an actual piece of advice.

My Conversation with Ben Thompson

Here is the audio and transcript.  Here is the summary opener:

Not only is Ben Thompson’s Stratechery frequently mentioned on MR, but such is Tyler’s fandom that the newsletter even made its way onto the reading list for one of his PhD courses. Ben’s based in Taiwan, so when he recently visited DC, Tyler quickly took advantage of the chance for an in-person dialogue.

In this conversation they talk about the business side of tech and more, including whether tech titans are good at PR, whether conglomerate synergies exist, Amazon’s foray into health care, why anyone needs an Apple Watch or an Alexa, growing up in small-town Wisconsin, his pragmatic book-reading style, whether MBAs are overrated, the prospects for the Milwaukee Bucks, NBA rule changes, the future of the tech industries in China and India, and why Taiwanese breakfast is the best breakfast.

Here is one excerpt:

COWEN: Why should I want a tech device in my home at all? Take Alexa — I don’t have one, I’m pretty happy, my life is simple. I don’t want anyone or anything listening to me. What does it do for me? I know I can tell it to play me a song or buy something on Amazon, but that’s one-click shopping anyway, could hardly be simpler. Why do devices in the home have any future at all?

THOMPSON: The reality is — particularly when it comes to consumer products — is that in the long run, convenience always wins. I think people will have them in their homes, and they’ll become more popular because it’s convenient.

You can be doing whatever you want; you can say something like, “Set a timer five minutes,” or “What temperature should I grill my steak to?” And you’ll get an answer with your hands busy, and altogether it’s going to be a more convenient answer than it would’ve been otherwise.


COWEN: How bullish are you on India’s tech sector and software development?

THOMPSON: I’m bullish. You know, India — people want to put it in the same bucket as, “Oh, it’s the next China.” The countries are similar in that they’re both very large, but they’re so different.

Probably the most underrated event — I don’t want to say in human history, but in the last hundred years — is the Cultural Revolution in China. And not just that 60, 70 million people were killed, or starved to death, or what it might be, but it really was like a scorched earth for China as a whole. Everything started from scratch. And from an economic perspective, that’s why you can grow for so long — because you’re starting from nothing basically. But the way it impacts culture, generally, and the way business is done.

Taiwan, I think, struggles from having thousands of years of Chinese bureaucracy behind it. Plus they were occupied by Japan for 50 years, so you’ve got that culture on top. Then you have this sclerotic corporate culture that the boss is always right, stay in the office until he goes home, and that sort of thing. It’s unhealthy.

Whereas China — it’s much more bare-knuckled competition and “Figure out the right answer, figure it out quickly.” The competition there is absolutely brutal. It’s brutal in a way I think is hard for people to really comprehend, from the West. And that makes China, makes these companies really something to deal with.

Whereas India did not have something like that. Yes, it had colonialism, but all that is still there, and the effects of that, and the long-term effects of India’s thousands of years of culture. So it makes it much more difficult to wrap things up, to get things done. And that’s always, I think, going to be the case. The way India develops, generally, because they didn’t have a clear-the-decks event like the Cultural Revolution, is always going to be fundamentally different.

And that is by no means a bad thing. I’m not wishing the Cultural Revolution on anyone. I’m just saying it makes the countries really fundamentally different.

Definitely recommended.

What should I ask Ben Thompson?

Yes, I will be doing a Conversation with Ben Thompson the tech commentator at Stratechery (worth the $$), no associated public event.  Here is Wikipedia on Ben:

Ben Thompson is an American business, technology, and media analyst, who is based in Taiwan. He is known principally for writing Stratechery, a subscription-based newsletter featuring in-depth commentary on tech and media news that has been called a “must-read in Silicon Valley circles”.

Here is Ben’s self-description.  Here is Ben on Twitter.  So what should I ask him?

Ben Thompson on data portability and Facebook

The problem with data portability is that it goes both ways: if you can take your data out of Facebook to other applications, you can do the same thing in the other direction. The question, then, is which entity is likely to have the greater center of gravity with regards to data: Facebook, with its social network, or practically anything else?

Remember the conditions that led to Facebook’s rise in the first place: the company was able to circumvent Google, go directly to users, and build a walled garden of data that the search company couldn’t touch. Partnering or interoperating with companies below the Bill Gates Line, particularly aggregators, is simply an invitation to be intermediated. To demand that governments enforce exactly that would be a massive mistake that only helps Facebook.

Link to the post, with further explanation, is here.  You can and should subscribe to Ben here.  Here is my earlier post on data portability.

Ben Thompson on the Amazon consortium and health care

What would make more sense to me is that, having first built an interface for its employees, and then a standardized infrastructure for its health care suppliers, is that Amazon converts the latter into a marketplace where PBMs, insurance administrators, distributors, and pharmacies have to compete to serve employees. And then, once that marketplace is functioning, Amazon will open the floodgates on the demand side, offering that standard interface to every large employer in America…

This is certainly ambitious enough — basically intermediating U.S. employers and the U.S. healthcare industry — but in fact this only sets the stage for the wholesale disruption of American healthcare. First, Amazon could not only open up its standard interface to other large employers, but small-and-medium sized businesses, and even individuals; in this way the Amazon Health Marketplace could aggregate by far the most demand for healthcare.

And to close the piece:

My expectation, then, is not that the Internet methodically disrupts industry after industry in some sort of chronological order, but rather that the entire edifice lasts far longer than technologists think, only to one day collapse far quicker than anyone expected.

The ultimate winners of this shakeout, then, are not only companies that are building businesses predicated on the Internet, but just as importantly, are willing and able to build those businesses with the patience that will be necessary to wait for the old order to collapse, particularly if that collapse happens years or decades after the underlying business models are rotten.

Here is more, and I do hope you are all subscribing to Stratechery, which is one of the very best regular reads, worth the money.

Emergent Ventures prizes for best new and recent blogs — Liberalism 2.0 fellows

In recent years, blogs and blog-like entities have proved one of the most effective ways of debating and advancing worldviews and debating ideas. Slate Star Codex, Andrew Sullivan’s The Dish, The Money Illusion, and Paul Graham’s essays are all influential examples. SSC introduced much of the world to the rationalist movement and Effective Altruism. The Dish was at the forefront of the intellectual case for gay marriage. With NGDP targeting, The Money Illusion successfully articulated the case for improvements in monetary policy. Paul Graham’s essays are part of the intellectual firmament behind the explosion of startups over the past 15 years. One could also look to Ben Thompson’s Stratechery, which popularized the subscription newsletter business model and provides some of the very best tech industry commentary. There is now a growing industry of independent Substacks, with Bill Bishop’s Sinocism an influential example.

In 2020, there is an undimmed need for new thinking around how the ideals of liberty and reason can best be applied. You need barely scratch the surface in our prevailing ideologies to find central questions almost completely unaddressed.

Surely better education is an important society-wide goal — but what is the liberal remedy to the failure of our public institutions (like education and healthcare) to generate improvements remotely commensurate with cost increases? Libertarianism remains a valuable critique, but what is a libertarian perspective on why the US can’t develop a COVID-19 vaccine more quickly, or why US universities are so homogeneous and ideological? Conservatives may take exception at the excesses of the so-called social justice movement — but what is a positive and properly balanced theory for how to right various inefficient (and unjust) social wrongs? Advocates for the free market will be biased against restrictions on cross-border trade, but should Indonesia not conclude that industrial policy was of high efficacy for many countries in northeast Asia? Those of a non-interventionist disposition may not worry too much about Taiwan’s near-term security, but would it not be a mistake to neglect the possibility that China’s rise may pose a growing threat to Taiwanese liberty?

It is tempting to believe that we must simply hew more closely to the works of the greats. In closer exegesis and more faithful obeisance to our Bentham, our Mill, our Smith, our Marx, our Hayek, or our Friedman, we’ll find the answers that we seek.

But there is an alternative and more appealing vision, namely that we need new ideas, new syntheses, and new arguments. That said, we need more argumentation and exposition than you will find on Twitter alone.

We therefore invite submissions to a new blog contest, as part of Emergent Ventures (Mercatus Center, George Mason University). Eligible entries:

– Are blogs or blog-like isomorphs. (Posts are reasonably frequent; content is freely available and linkable; at least some posts are mini-essays. Substacks do count, if freely available, noting you are not prohibited from later turning them into profit-making ventures.)

– Started in the past 12 months, or in the next six months.

– Explore ideas relevant to liberty, prosperity, progress, and the foundations of a free society.

“Web 2.0” was a coarse label applied to a broad set of software trends. In a similarly incompletely defined and unapologetic manner, and in homage to the internet-native aspect of these blogs, winners shall be deemed Liberalism 2.0 Fellows.

Within six months, and quite possibly sooner, an initial $100,000 prize will be awarded. Five further awards up to or at a comparable level will be possible if there are enough high-quality submissions (blogs started after this announcement are thus more likely to win the later awards, given the time to prove excellence, though in principle eligible for the first award too). To apply, simply email [email protected], with winners to be announced on Marginal Revolution. Please note that entries will not be acknowledged and only winners will be notified.

I look forward to seeing what you all come up with.

Sunday assorted links

1. Where have all the briskets gone?  A good lesson in supply chain economics.  And China to slap big tariffs on Australian barley exports.

2. Scarlett Strong on the updated source code.

3. Falling as a feature of Covid-19.

4. Dithering: a new podcast by Ben Thompson and John Gruber.

5. WHO conditionally backs the notion of Human Challenge Trials for vaccines.

6. Hockey analytics guy contributes to Covid-19 modeling.

7. Toward a theory of how and why UFOs would reveal themselves.

8. How much would you pay for this distanced (Dutch) meal?

9. “Citations for traveling faster than 100 mph have been numerous in recent days.

10. Millie Small, RIP (music video).

11. To be clear, I am not against this kind of article (NYT).  “Sweatpants and Caviar,” but in the paper edition it is called “A Chance to Think About Composing that Opera.”  Still, we can learn a bit from doing a small amount of modeling of how it came about.

12. A sad take, no matter which side you trust, our regulatory state is failing us.

13. “Ethics of controlled human infection to study COVID-19.”  That is what you might call “an establishment piece.”  On one hand, it is nice to see them not reject the idea, though they cannot agree on monetary compensation for exposure.  I wonder how they feel about fishing boats?

The Speed Premium in an exponentially growing pandemic world

I’ve blogged a few times in the past about the importance of speed, and speed as an input into productivity and innovation. What many people do not realize is that “the speed premium” is vastly higher when a deadly virus is doubling in reach every five to seven days.

An economic or epidemiological plan from a week ago might be worthless or even misleading today.  For instance, some scientists have told me that at some point, if the virus is widespread enough, there is no choice but to let it burn its way through the population (not saying we are there yet, probably not according to the consensus of experts I am seeing).

Have you perused recent newspapers and mentally noted how many of the articles — such as reviews of art exhibitions — obviously were written and planned in The Time Before (can I call it that?).  Those articles are now largely worthless, though a few of them may have nostalgia value.

If you are writing commentary, the value is being there is the morning, not the evening.  The “commentary cycle” used to stretch at least a day or two, occasionally a full week.

The corporate value of being prepared early with a good telework plan has been especially high.

Ben Thompson writes: “…on January 23, the day that China locked down Wuhan, Taiwan had the capability of producing 2.44 million masks a day; this week Taiwan is expected to exceed 13 million masks a day, a sufficient number for not only medical workers but also the general public.”

If you are seeking to start a business, to deal with the third party vendors that Amazon is (temporarily) abandoning, you cannot just wait a month or two.  You have to start now.

The Chinese system has its flaws from an anti-pandemic point of view, most of all low transparency.  But their typical rapid speed of response has been astonishing — setting up that hospital in six days — and it is a big reason why they are on a (partial) rebound.

If you are giving philanthropic grants, you have to be ready to give them now.  If you give them three months from now, you may well miss the boat in terms of expected impact.

Are you ready for a world where the speed premium is so insanely high?

I wish to thank Daniel Gross for a conversation related to this blog post.  We spoke at 3.5x.

Monday assorted links

Net neutrality for me but not for thee?

To be perfectly clear, I would prefer that 8chan did not exist. At the same time, many of those arguing that 8chan should be erased from the Internet were insisting not too long ago that the U.S. needed to apply Title II regulation (i.e. net neutrality) to infrastructure companies to ensure they were not discriminating based on content. While Title II would not have applied to Cloudflare, it is worth keeping in mind that at some point or another nearly everyone reading this article has expressed concern about infrastructure companies making content decisions.

That is from the excellent Ben Thompson and yes you should pay for his tech email newsletter.

That was then, this is now

The data came from Facebook:

During Obama’s initial 2008 bid for office, his team had already embraced technology in a greater capacity than any before it, assembling massive email lists and other targeted initiatives that earned Obama historic fundraising tallies. But for 2012, campaign manager Jim Messina wanted to take things even further.

To get there, his staff needed to link what had previously been disjointed databases of voter information (collected by volunteers, pollsters, and other campaign workers) into a single, comprehensive pool unrivaled in detail and scope. Whereas most voter logs used by campaigns often list only names and telephone numbers, Obama’s advanced tool dove into specifics like age, race, district, and voting history: it allowed field workers to rank voters intelligently and not waste time chasing unlikely votes.

Here is the article from The Verge, via the excellent Ben Thompson.  I recall similarly glowing coverage from The New York Times.

Libra and remittances

Dante Disparte, as interviewed by Ben Thompson ($$, but you should subscribe to Ben):

One example is the use case of international money transfers or remittances. Globally, the remittance cash flow is projected to be about $715 billion in 2019, and on average…you are seeing between seven and ten percent of transfer costs, and in some instances much higher than that in the teens. For a product and an outcome from the sender and receiver point of view, that is not only very slow, it often takes a few days to clear on the receiving end, it is [extremely expensive]. There are direct payment rails that are just technology powered that do a lot in terms of advancing efficiency, but pre-blockchain it would have been very, very hard to conceive of a network of international payments that could do that at near zero cost instantaneously while at the same time not sacrificing the type of ledgering and transaction information that would enable the world to begin to do that securely. So that would be one amazing use case that could put billions and billions of dollars back into the market by eliminating as many of these fees as possible, while at the same time putting billions of dollars into the hands of people around the world in real time.

Here is my current understanding of Libra/Calibra, at least within this particular context, noting again that my understanding may be wrong or incomplete.  These transfers would not go through the current banking system as we know it, but rather through a blockchain with say 100 or so (quite legitimate) participants enforcing some kind of “proof of stake” standard.  Some form of “proof of stake-equivalent of mining fees” would have to be paid, either explicitly or implicitly, and those arguably could be much lower than current remittance costs, noting that the actual operation of proof of stake in this setting remains to me murky.  Still, it would largely avoid the current mining fees associated with Bitcoin.  On net, one is trading in the current regulatory and clearing and Western Union branch costs for these future proof of stake costs.  Do you think the Libra Association can run a proof of stake system for less say than $100 billion?

“But don’t you have to convert your Libras back into mainstream fiat currencies?”  Well, maybe you might, but that is simply the cost of showing up at the relevant financial institutions and claiming redemption.  Those costs also could be much lower than the current fees associated with remittances.  What is sent through the blockchain network simply can be Libras, as I understand it, with varying assumptions on how much people will hold Libras rather than converting them.

To use a historical analogy, think of this as substituting “the transfer of paper claims to gold” for “claims to gold,” but in a one hundred percent reserves setting.  It can be (and indeed was) much cheaper to send around the paper than the gold, and yet the paper still was a claim to the gold.  The Libra is a kind of parallel, redeemable currency, legally not within standard banking systems, but still redeemable in terms of mainstream fiat currencies which are within standard banking systems.  “Create a synthetic claim which can be traded more cheaply” would be my version of the ten-word slogan.

Another slightly wordier slogan might be: “let’s actually separate the means of payment from the medium of exchange by creating a new synthetic asset, because those two things actually should not be the exact same asset.”

Of course it still remains to be seen in which countries regulators will allow this to happen.  How persuasive is the promise of one hundred percent reserves?  I don’t mean to speak for Libra/Calibra here, but I believe they are suggesting (or implying?) that the proof of stake system for making and validating transfers could in essence enforce relevant regulations against money laundering, illegal transfers, and the like.

It is a quite separate (but possible) claim to believe that libras could serve as an effective medium of exchange at a retail level, and perhaps I will cover that in a separate post.  That would mean that both the medium of exchange and means of payment should be new and different assets, a much stronger claim.

Here are my earlier questions about Libra, with responses.

Tuesday assorted links

The Facebook cryptocurrency

Kroszner and I wrote about related possibilities in our 1994 book Explorations in the New Monetary Economics.  Here is a not very informative WSJ article.  Here is Ben Thompson speculating from his email newsletter:

This, then, is what I suspect is the overall motivation for Facebook’s efforts: having its own currency will allow for transactions on Facebook’s terms, not the credit card companies, which should, in turn, allow for both more kinds and more total transactions. Consider a Facebook currency on a theoretical level: if there were no fees attached to a transaction, micropayments suddenly become much more viable; peer-to-peer payments are simple — for both users and Facebook — as clicking a button; tipping models actually make sense.

None of these benefits are new to be sure, the question, though — and this is always the question generally, but with payments especially — is how you get from here-to-there. Remember, payments is a multi-sided network: users have to be one board, merchants need to be on board, and there has to be some sort of liquidity in the market. From a user perspective, how do you get them to buy into the network? Then consider merchants: how do you prevent them from taking money out of the market, killing liquidity?

In fact, Facebook is well-equipped on both fronts, particularly the merchant side: remember, merchants are the most likely culprits when it comes to killing liquidity in a market. They are going to transfer a cryptocurrency to fiat as soon as possible. Merchants, though, are also paying Facebook a lot of money for ads: that is, they are already putting money into the system. To that end, it is easy to see Facebook giving a discount to merchants willing to leave their money in the system and simply buy advertising using their Facebook tokens.

Users are trickier: certainly Facebook will push things like peer-to-peer payments to get users to connect up their bank accounts or debit cards to Facebook’s network, but I also suspect this is where the rumors about Facebook paying for ad-viewing comes in. This is not, in my estimation, some sort of genuine acknowledgment that user attention is worth compensating directly, but rather a plausible way to seed user accounts such that they are motivated to use Facebook’s currency; ideally, at least for Facebook, there will end up being lots of ways to use that currency.

…I don’t think that Facebook wants to impose any fees at all: thinks about it — what could possibly be more valuable to an advertising-based business than knowing exactly what customers are spending their money on?

You have to pay for Ben, but it is worth doing so, you can subscribe here.

Prophets of the Conversations with Tyler

From before the season started:

COWEN: The Milwaukee Bucks last year won, I believe, 44 games, and in the NBA, they were in the bottom third for the number of three-pointers attempted. Why should we think they might do better this year?

[Ben] THOMPSON: Because they had the worst coach in the league, by far, and he is gone, and now they have a new coach. They actually have the best shot profile in the entire league in the preseason, which is shooting threes or shooting shots at the rim. They are 89 percent or something like that.

They are going to have a great year. Giannis is going to win MVP. It’s going to be amazing, and we, being Bucks Twitter, is going to spend the whole time telling everyone that we were right and they were wrong.

That is from my Conversation with Ben Thompson.  The Bucks are now 9-2, and two nights ago they beat the world champion Golden State Warriors.

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