Category: Web/Tech

My Conversation with Henry Farrell

An excellent episode, here is the audio and transcript.  We ranged far and wide, starting with Huawei and weaponized interdependence, moving later to the Facebook supreme court, Karl Polanyi, Ireland, and Gene Wolfe and Philip K. Dick.  Here is one excerpt:

COWEN: Arguably, dominant firms are easier to regulate. And since you seem to favor some kinds of additional regulation on the major tech companies, does this mean we’re too worried about monopoly, that we actually want to keep around a few dominant firms, and that if we split them up into many small parts, there would be more chaos or more fake news or more privacy violations?

If some parts of what they do are bad, and you get more competition in the bad, don’t we just want to put in GDPR barriers to entry, not quite public utilities, but keep them big and fat and happy and somewhat not so dynamic, yes or no?

FARRELL: It depends on what you value.

COWEN: But what you value.

FARRELL: Yeah. Let me put the tradeoff to you this way. If you value security, if the highlight is on security, then the answer is, you probably want to keep big companies around because you’re going to want to impose broad standards. You’re going to want to create collective security goods, and the only actors that can really do that in a substantial way are big businesses of one sort or another.

If, alternatively, you value things like privacy and other kinds of rights, then you probably want to move towards an equilibrium in which there are far, far fewer big firms. So that’s where I see the fight being played out. I see the fight being played out between people who value security and people who value privacy. I think they point in somewhat different directions.

COWEN: And where are you on that spectrum?

FARRELL: Well, it depends on the time of the day, and I find myself —

COWEN: It is 2:22 p.m.


FARRELL: Well, I guess the question for me is — and again, this is a wide open question because we simply don’t have enough good empirical research — but what is the relationship and the broader ecology between companies like 8chan and companies like Facebook? I suspect that companies like 8chan will be far, far less successful if there weren’t much bigger platforms like Facebook that they could effectively grow upon.

So here are the arguments, something as follows. If you think about 8chan, and if you think about 4chan before it, they were basically meme factories. They were basically these places where these bored individuals hung out. You also created these memes in a kind of process of frenzied Darwinian evolution, where you desperately want to make sure that whatever you had said was on the front page because otherwise it would disappear forever. So you’ve got this survival-of-the-fittest thing, where incredibly valuable or incredibly effective memes go out and begin to populate the entire space.

But you need two things for that to work. First of all, you need a process of generation, and secondly, you need some kind of process of dissemination. You need other platforms which have far greater reach, which can then allow for these memes to propagate through the atmosphere.

I suspect that if we were in a world in which everything was at the scale of 8chan, rather than having a mixture of companies at the scale of 8chan and companies at the scale of Facebook, that the likelihood of this stuff spreading and becoming epidemic across the entire community of internet users would be far, far less. Obviously, we would have other problems then. But I think that the problems that we would face would be a very, very different set of problems from the problems that we face in the current environment.


FARRELL: Yes. [Gene] Wolfe misleads us systematically, and clearly Severian is not a reliable narrator, but then neither is Proust’s narrator either. I think that if you really want to understand where Wolfe comes from, it really is Proust. His writing style is Proustian. His concern with time, with how it is that time works, is quintessentially Proustian.

And you don’t look to Wolfe any more than you look to other science fiction for characterization. I don’t think that’s the particular strength. What you do look for is a kind of a sense of the world. And in Wolfe, in particular, he provides this real understanding of how it is that the workings of society, and interestingly, conservative understanding of the workings of society.

I think of him almost as being Proust in reverse. Proust is describing a world in which the modern world is overtaking aristocracy. And that clearly is one of the great problems of Proust, what is happening on the social level. You have all of these aristocratic understandings: the Merovingian, all of these histories, all of these castles, all of this wonderful art, and they are being replaced by the modern world with its telephones, with its electric lighting, and so on.

And how do you think about this? How would you try to preserve what was happening in the past? What Wolfe does, which I think is an extraordinarily interesting thing, which would be impossible for anybody who is not a science fiction writer, is to take that and to reverse this and to imagine a world in which modernity has disappeared.


The three percent digital tax

France among other nations has been calling for a three percent digital tax, for instance as might apply to Facebook revenue connected to France but booked say to Ireland, which has a lower corporate tax rate.  (The exact meaning of “connected to France” is indeed murky here, if you are wondering, but proponents might have in mind a simple France-to-France transaction, such as selling an ad to a French buyer for a French product; there are more complicated grey areas.)

As is so often the case, the debate is focusing on how little tax some of the major tech companies pay directly to the French treasury, rather than on tax incidence.  In reality, the major tech companies may already be bearing a quite significant tax burden.

Let’s say you believe that Facebook has significant market power over the advertising market in France.  That is not exactly my view, but let’s run with it — a competitiveness assumption will hardly boost the case for taxing Facebook.

At this point your mind already may be thinking that the monopolist in the supply chain will bear some significant portion of a tax, just as land bears tax burdens in a Georgian land monopolist model.

Let’s now say that France boosts its VAT — how will that impact Facebook?  Well, the short-run effect is that directly taxed good and services will tend to cost more.  That in turn will create pressures for them to advertise less, because their potential market size and potential profits are smaller.  If they advertise less, they are spending less money on Facebook ads.  Facebook profits go down (remember, Facebook is selling those ads above marginal cost), and thus Facebook bears some of the burden of the tax.

Do the same analysis in terms of levels rather than changes, and you will see that Facebook bears some of the burden of the current French VAT.

So the French VAT brings money into the French treasury, and some of that money comes from Facebook in an indirect form, in addition to whatever direct tax liabilities Facebook may bear under the current French VAT structure.  Furthermore, the net tax burden on Facebook is higher, the more monopolistic is Facebook in the ad market.

I should note that there are other ways you can play around with the assumptions.

A good rule of thumb is that you should place less weight on tax discussions that do not focus obsessively on tax incidence.

The new Flynn effect?

People can type almost as fast on a phone screen as they do on a computer keyboard, suggests a study.

Average typing speeds on mobiles are now 38 words per minute (wpm) compared to about 52 on a standard PC keyboard.

The gap was narrower among people aged 10-19 who averaged about 10wpm more than older users, it found.

The amount of time that people spend using their phones every day has honed typing skills, said the team that carried out the work…

The fastest phone typist hit a speed of 85wpm, the study found.

Oh, and this:

Phone speeds were helped by auto-correct systems but hindered by other aids that seek to predict what word a person had begun to type.

The time it took people to work out whether a predicted word was correct ended up slowing them down, it found.

By contrast, auto-correct systems that eliminated the need for a few thumb strokes helped people finish messages faster.

Here is the article, via Michelle Dawson.

Why firms stay private longer?

Yes, Sarbanes-Oxley is one well-known reason but there are more reasons, most of all stemming from a shift in the balance of power toward founders, boosting their ability to raise private capital:

One such notable deregulation event has been the National Securities Markets Improvement Act (NSMIA), passed in October 1996. NSMIA has made it easier for both private startups and the private funds investing in them to raise capital. First, NSMIA exempts private firms selling unregistered securities under Rule 506 of Regulation D from state securities regulations known as blue sky laws (Rule 506 is one of the exemptions firms can use to issue private shares not registered with the SEC). As a result, NSMIA has made it easier for startups to raise private capital from out-of-state investors by exempting private firms from complying with the blue sky laws of every new state where they issue securities (public firms have long been exempt from blue sky laws). Second, NSMIA has made it easier for private funds such as venture capital (VC) and private equity (PE) funds to raise large amounts of capital by increasing the number of investors in a fund that force the fund to register under the Investment Company Act (ICA).2Registered funds have to regularly disclose their investment portfolio and face leverage and other restrictions, and so VC and PE funds tend to avoid having to register.

That is from a new NBER working paper by Michael Ewens and Joan Farre-Mensa.

Against central bank digital currencies

That is the theme of my latest Bloomberg column, note that the idea would to some extent cut private banks out of the intermediation equation.  Here is one excerpt:

An alternative scenario is that the central bank decides to enter the commercial lending business, much as your current bank does. Will the central bank be a better lender than the private banks? Probably not. Central banks are conservative by nature, and have few “roots in the community” as the phrase is commonly understood. The end result would be more funds used to buy Treasury bonds and mortgage securities — highly institutionalized investments — and fewer loans to small and mid-sized local businesses.


The problems run deeper yet. Financial regulation makes a relatively tight distinction between banks and non-banks. Banks have access to the payments system directly and enjoy other privileges, and in return their risk-taking is regulated more heavily (by not only the Fed but also other federal agencies and states). A fintech startup, in contrast, avoids most bank regulations, but it must work through banks to make payments. This division of responsibilities is imperfect, but it has allowed many parts of the U.S. economy to grow and innovate without facing all of the regulations imposed on banks.

This leads to my primary objection to an official government e-currency: It would, in effect, make many more economic institutions more like banks. Over time, those institutions would probably be regulated more like banks, too. For instance, if the Fed is directly transmitting payments made by a private company, it might be wary of credit risk and impose capital and reserve requirements on that company, much as it does on banks. Banks also might complain that they are facing unfair competition, and ask that consistent regulations be imposed. In any case, more of the economy likely will be subject to financial regulation, not just the relatively narrow core of the banking system.

Not all innovation is good innovation.

Who favors unbreakable commercial encryption?

Governments may be the main threat to big tech companies’ current approach to encryption, but there is another, more surprising threat: their own business interests. The techno-libertarians’ absolutist rejection of lawful access has never been tenable in a commercial context. Barr lambasted Silicon Valley for claiming that government access to consumer devices was never acceptable, even for a purpose as critical as stopping terror attacks, while insisting that its companies had to have access to all their customers’ devices for the purpose of sending them security updates (and, in Apple’s case, promotional copies of unwanted U2 albums). What’s more, Big Tech’s best customers—that is, businesses—don’t want unbreakable end-to-end communications direct to the end user. That encrypted pipe makes it impossible to find and stop malware as it comes in and stolen intellectual property as it goes out. It also thwarts a host of regulatory compliance mandates. So, pace the absolutists, tech companies have found ways to ensure that their business customers can compromise end-to-end security.

And there is this:

…I believe the tech companies are slowly losing the battle over encryption. They’ve been able to bottle up legislation in the United States, where the tech lobby represents a domestic industry producing millions of jobs and trillions in personal wealth. But they have not been strong enough to stop the Justice Department from campaigning for lawful access. And now the department is unabashedly encouraging other countries to keep circling the tech industry, biting off more and more in the form of law enforcement mandates. That’s a lot easier in countries where Silicon Valley is seen as an alien and often hostile force, casually destroying domestic industries and mores.

The Justice Department has learned from its time on the receiving end of such an indirect approach to tech regulation. It has struggled for 30 years against a European campaign to use privacy regulation to prevent tech companies from giving the U.S. government easy access to personal data. But as the tide of opinion turned against U.S. tech companies around the world, the EU was able to impose billions in fines on them in the name of privacy. Soon it really didn’t matter that these companies’ data practices weren’t regulated at home. They had to comply with Europe’s General Data Protection Regulation. And once they accepted that, their will to lobby against similar legislation in the United States was broken. That’s why California—and perhaps the federal government—is inching closer to enacting a privacy law that resembles Europe’s.

Here is the full Stewart Baker post, interesting throughout.

3G Internet and Confidence in Government

Evidence for the Gurri thesis:

How does the internet affect government approval? Using surveys of 840,537 individuals from 2,232 subnational regions in 116 countries in 2008-2017 from the Gallup World Poll and the global expansion of 3G networks, we show that an increase in internet access reduces government approval and increases the perception of corruption in government. This effect is present only when the internet is not censored and is stronger when traditional media is censored. Actual incidents of corruption translate into higher corruption perception only in places covered by 3G. In Europe, the expansion of mobile internet increased vote shares of anti-establishment populist parties.

That is from a new paper by Sergei Guriev, Nikita Melnikov, and Ekaterina Zhuravskaya, via the excellent Ilya Novak and Kevin Lewis.

Autonomous weapons need autonomous lawyers

With the arrival of autonomous weapons systems (AWS) on the 21st century battlefield, the nature of warfare is poised for dramatic change. Overseen by artificial intelligence (AI), fueled by terabytes of data and operating at lightning-fast speed, AWS will be the decisive feature of future military conflicts. Nonetheless, under the American way of war, AWS will operate within existing legal and policy guidelines that establish conditions and criteria for the application of force. Even as the Department of Defense (DoD) places limitations on when and how AWS may take action, the pace of new conflicts and adoption of AWS by peer competitors will ultimately push military leaders to empower AI-enabled weapons to make decisions with less and less human input. As such, timely, accurate, and context-specific legal advice during the planning and operation of AWS missions will be essential. In the face of digital-decision-making, mere human legal advisors will be challenged to keep up!

Here is more, by Colonel Walter “Frank” Coppersmith, via Air Genius Gary Leff.

p.s. What’s with the “Frank”?  How about just Frank?

p.p.s. Don’t ask about the judges.

Philip K. Dick predicts the future

From 1981:

1995: Computer use by ordinary citizens (already available in 1980) will transform the public from passive viewers of TV into mentally alert, highly trained, information-processing experts

2010: Using tachyons (particles that move backward in time) as a carrier, the Soviet Union will attempt to alter the past with scientific information.

That is from The Shifting Realities of Philip K. Dick: Selected Literary and Philosophical Writings, edited by Lawrence Sutin.

My Conversation with Alain Bertaud

Excellent throughout, Alain put on an amazing performance for the live audience at the top floor of the Observatory at the old World Trade Center site.  Here is the audio and transcript, most of all we talked about cities.  Here is one excerpt:

COWEN: Will America create any new cities in the next century? Or are we just done?

BERTAUD: Cities need a good location. This is a debate I had with Paul Romer when he was interested in charter cities. He had decided that he could create 50 charter cities around the world. And my reaction — maybe I’m wrong — but my reaction is that there are not 50 very good locations for cities around the world. There are not many left. Maybe with Belt and Road, maybe the opening of Central Asia. Maybe the opening of the ocean route on the northern, following the pole, will create the potential for new cities.

But cities like Singapore, Malacca, Mumbai are there for a good reason. And I don’t think there’s that many very good locations.

COWEN: Or Greenland, right?


BERTAUD: Yes. Yes, yes.

COWEN: What is your favorite movie about a city? You mentioned a work of fiction. Movie — I’ll nominate Escape from New York.


BERTAUD: Casablanca.

Here is more:

COWEN: Your own background, coming from Marseille rather than from Paris —

BERTAUD: I would not brag about it normally.


COWEN: But no, maybe you should brag about it. How has that changed how you understand cities?

BERTAUD: I’m very tolerant of messy cities.

COWEN: Messy cities.


COWEN: Why might that be, coming from Marseille?

BERTAUD: When we were schoolchildren in Marseille, we were used to a city which has a . . . There’s only one big avenue. The rest are streets which were created locally. You know, the vernacular architecture.

In our geography book, we had this map of Manhattan. Our first reaction was, the people in Manhattan must have a hard time finding their way because all the streets are exactly the same.


BERTAUD: In Marseille we oriented ourselves by the angle that a street made with another. Some were very narrow, some very, very wide. One not so wide. But some were curved, some were . . . And that’s the way we oriented ourselves. We thought Manhattan must be a terrible place. We must be lost all the time.


COWEN: And what’s your best Le Corbusier story?

BERTAUD: I met Le Corbusier at a conference in Paris twice. Two conferences. At the time, he was at the top of his fame, and he started the conference by saying, “People ask me all the time, what do you think? How do you feel being the most well-known architect in the world?” He was not a very modest man.


BERTAUD: And he said, “You know what it feels? It feels that my ass has been kicked all my life.” That’s the way he started this. He was a very bitter man in spite of his success, and I think that his bitterness is shown in his planning and some of his architecture.

COWEN: Port-au-Prince, Haiti — overrated or underrated?

Strongly recommended, and note that Bertaud is eighty years old and just coming off a major course of chemotherapy, a remarkable performance.

Again, I am very happy to recommend Alain’s superb book Order Without Design: How Markets Shape Cities.

Why we will end up piercing the corporate veil

The internet is one big reason why we will find it increasingly difficult to separate out the assets of a company from the assets of its founders or CEOs, as I discuss in my latest Bloomberg column:

More important, social media personalizes agency — in effect, making it easier to accuse particular individuals of wrongdoing. Mark Zuckerberg, Jeff Bezos, and the Koch brothers all have images or iconic photos that can be put into a social media post, amplifying any attack on their respective companies. It is harder to vilify Exxon, in part because hardly anyone can name its CEO (Darren Woods, since 2017), who in any case did not create the current version of the company. Putting the Exxon logo on your vituperative social media post just doesn’t have the same impact. With Bill Gates having stepped down as Microsoft CEO in 2000, it is harder to vilify that company as well.

This personalization of corporate evil has become a bigger issue in part because many prominent tech companies are currently led by their founders, and also because the number of publicly traded companies has been falling, which means there are fewer truly anonymous corporations. It’s not hard to imagine a future in which the most important decision a new company makes is how personalized it wants to be. A well-known founder can spark interest in the company and its products, and help to attract talent. At the same time, a personalized company is potentially a much greater target.

The more human identities and feelings are part of the equation, however, the harder it will be to keep the classic distinction between a corporation and its owners. As the era of personalization evolves, it will inevitably engulf that most impersonal of entities — the corporation.

Do read the whole thing.

The college football surveillance culture that is Alabama

Saban, the Alabama football coach, has long been peeved that the student section at Bryant-Denny Stadium empties early. So this season, the university is rewarding students who attend games — and stay until the fourth quarter — with an alluring prize: improved access to tickets to the SEC championship game and to the College Football Playoff semifinals and championship game, which Alabama is trying to reach for the fifth consecutive season.

But to do this, Alabama is taking an extraordinary, Orwellian step: using location-tracking technology from students’ phones to see who skips out and who stays.

“It’s kind of like Big Brother,” said Allison Isidore, a graduate student in religious studies from Montclair, N.J…

Greg Byrne, Alabama’s athletic director, said privacy concerns rarely came up when the program was being discussed with other departments and student groups. Students who download the Tide Loyalty Points app will be tracked only inside the stadium, he said, and they can close the app — or delete it — once they leave the stadium. “If anybody has a phone, unless you’re in airplane mode or have it off, the cellular companies know where you are,” he said.

Here is the full NYT piece, via Anecdotal.

Consumers seem to like search engine advertising

We analyze a large-scale field experiment conducted on a US search engine in which 3.3 million users were randomized into seeing more, or less advertising. Our data rejects that users are, overall, averse to search advertising targeted to them. At the margin, users prefer the search engine with higher level of advertising. The usage of the search engine (in terms of number of searches, and number of search sessions) is higher among users who see higher levels of advertising, relative to the control group. This difference in usage persists even after the experimental treatment ends. The increase in usage is higher for users on the margin who, in the past, typed a competing search engine’s name in the search query and navigated away from our focal search engine. On the supply side, higher level of advertising increases traffic to newer websites. Consumer response to search advertising is also more positive when more businesses located in the consumer’s state create new websites. Quantitatively, the experimental treatment of a higher level of advertising increases ad clicks which leads to between 4.3% to 14.6% increase in search engine revenue.

Overall, patterns in our data are consistent with an equilibrium in which advertising conveys relevant “local” information, which is unknown to the search engine, and therefore missed by the organic listings algorithm. Hence, search advertising makes consumers better off on average. On the margin, the search engine does not face a trade-off between advertising revenue and search engine usage.

That is from Navdeep S. Sahni and Charles Zhang, via the excellent Kevin Lewis.

Existential risk and growth

Here is the abstract of a new paper by Leopold Aschenbrenner:

Technological innovation can create or mitigate risks of catastrophes—such as nuclear war, extreme climate change, or powerful artificial intelligence run amok—that could imperil human civilization. What is the relationship between economic growth and these existential risks? In a model of endogenous and directed technical change, with moderate parameters, existential risk follows a Kuznets-style inverted Ushape. This suggests we could be living in a unique “time of perils,” having developed technologies advanced enough to threaten our permanent destruction, but not having grown wealthy enough yet to be willing to spend much on safety. Accelerating growth during this “time of perils” initially increases risk, but improves the chances of humanity’s survival in the long run. Conversely, even short-term stagnation could substantially curtail the future of humanity. Nevertheless, if the scale effect of existential risk is large and the returns to research diminish rapidly, it may be impossible to avert an eventual existential catastrophe.

Bravo!  44 pp. of brilliant text, another 40 pp. of proofs and derivations, and rumor has it that Leopold is only 17 years old, give or take.

If you happen to know Leopold, please do ask him to drop me a line.

For the pointer I thank Pablo Stafforini.