Saturday, January 09, 2016

Paul Graham's Social Essay

The Refragmentation by Paul Graham

Though strictly speaking World War II lasted less than 4 years for the US, its effects lasted longer. Wars make central governments more powerful, and World War II was an extreme case of this. In the US, as in all the other Allied countries, the federal government was slow to give up the new powers it had acquired. Indeed, in some respects the war didn't end in 1945; the enemy just switched to the Soviet Union. In tax rates, federal power, defense spending, conscription, and nationalism the decades after the war looked more like wartime than prewar peacetime. [3] And the social effects lasted too. The kid pulled into the army from behind a mule team in West Virginia didn't simply go back to the farm afterward. Something else was waiting for him, something that looked a lot like the army. ....... John D. Rockefeller said in 1880..... The day of combination is here to stay. Individualism has gone, never to return..... He turned out to be mistaken, but he seemed right for the next hundred years............. What happens now with the Super Bowl used to happen every night. We were literally in sync. ........ In his autobiography, Robert MacNeil talks of seeing gruesome images that had just come in from Vietnam and thinking, we can't show these to families while they're having dinner. ......... the "red delicious" apples that were red but only nominally apples. And in retrospect, it was crap. .........

For most of the 20th century, working-class people tried hard to look middle class. You can see it in old photos. Few adults aspired to look dangerous in 1950.

........ But the rise of national corporations didn't just compress us culturally. It compressed us economically too, and on both ends. ........ Along with giant national corporations, we got giant national labor unions. And in the mid 20th century the corporations cut deals with the unions where they paid over market price for labor. Partly because the unions were monopolies. ......... Much of the de facto pay of executives never showed up on their income tax returns, because it took the form of perks. ....... The ultimate way to get market price is to work for yourself, by starting your own company. That seems obvious to any ambitious person now. But in the mid 20th century it was an alien concept. ........ in the mid 20th century. Starting one's own business meant starting a business that would start small and stay small. Which in those days of big companies often meant scurrying around trying to avoid being trampled by elephants. It was more prestigious to be one of the executive class riding the elephant. ......... in the 20th century there were more and more college graduates. They increased from about 2% of the population in 1900 to about 25% in 2000 ........ people in the 1950s and 60s had been even more conformist than us ...... What J. P. Morgan was to the horizontal axis, Henry Ford was to the vertical. He wanted to do everything himself. ....... if you want to solve a problem using a network of cooperating companies, you have to be able to coordinate their efforts, and you can do that much better with computers. Computers reduce the transaction costs that Coase argued are the raison d'etre of corporations. That is a fundamental change. .......... IBM itself ended up being supplanted by a supplier coming in from the side—from software, which didn't even seem to be the same business. .........

Basically, Apple bumped IBM and then Microsoft stole its wallet. That sort of thing did not happen to big companies in mid-century. But it was going to happen increasingly often in the future.

......... This didn't seem as dubious to government officials at the time as it sounds to us. They felt a two-party system ensured sufficient competition in politics. It ought to work for business too. ...... The word used for this process was misleadingly narrow: deregulation. What was really happening was de-oligopolization. It happened to one industry after another. Two of the most visible to consumers were air travel and long-distance phone service, which both became dramatically cheaper after deregulation. ........

The companies in the S&P 500 in 1958 had been there an average of 61 years. By 2012 that number was 18 years.

......... the refragmentation was driven by computers in the way the industrial revolution was driven by steam engines. ........ The new fluidity of companies changed people's relationships with their employers. Why climb a corporate ladder that might be yanked out from under you? Ambitious people started to think of a career less as climbing a single ladder than as a series of jobs that might be at different companies. More movement (or even potential movement) between companies introduced more competition in salaries. Plus as companies became smaller it became easier to estimate how much an employee contributed to the company's revenue. Both changes drove salaries toward market price. And since people vary dramatically in productivity, paying market price meant salaries started to diverge. ........ Yuppies were young professionals who made lots of money. To someone in their twenties today, this wouldn't seem worth naming. Why wouldn't young professionals make lots of money? But until the 1980s being underpaid early in your career was part of what it meant to be a professional. ....... Almost four decades later, fragmentation is still increasing. ......... With the centripetal forces of total war and 20th century oligopoly mostly gone, what will happen next? ........

The form of fragmentation people worry most about lately is economic inequality, and if you want to eliminate that you're up against a truly formidable headwind—one that has been in operation since the stone age: technology. Technology is a lever. It magnifies work. And the lever not only grows increasingly long, but the rate at which it grows is itself increasing.

......... The ambitious had little choice but to join large organizations that made them march in step with lots of other people—literally in the case of the armed forces, figuratively in the case of big corporations. ......... as long as it's possible to get rich by creating wealth, the default tendency will be for economic inequality to increase. Even if you eliminate all the other ways to get rich. You can mitigate this with subsidies at the bottom and taxes at the top, but unless taxes are high enough to discourage people from creating wealth, you're always going to be fighting a losing battle against increasing variation in productivity. ......... When Rockefeller said individualism was gone, he was right for a hundred years. It's back now, and that's likely to be true for longer....... The first big company CEOs were J. P. Morgan's hired hands ........ "Our founder" meant a photograph of a severe-looking man with a walrus mustache and a wing collar who had died decades ago. The thing to be when I was a kid was an executive. If you weren't around then it's hard to grasp the cachet that term had. The fancy version of everything was called the "executive" model. ....... it is certainly not impossible for a CEO to make 200x as much difference to a company's revenues as the average employee. Look at what Steve Jobs did for Apple when he came back as CEO. It would have been a good deal for the board to give him 95% of the company. Apple's market cap the day Steve came back in July 1997 was 1.73 billion. 5% of Apple now (January 2016) would be worth about 30 billion. And it would not be if Steve hadn't come back; Apple probably wouldn't even exist anymore. ......... Google will pay people millions of dollars a year to keep them from leaving to start or join startups.

If computers have brought about so much disruption, imagine what artificial intelligence will do, and at what speed! I just hope we get to the age of abundance fast and end up in an era of no poverty, no disease. As to the massive surpluses, I am less worried about the rich. But even there social and political innovation can happen. You can't get rich unless a lot of people can buy what you are selling. Political innovation is not happening as fast as technological innovation. And that is bad news. It does not have to be. Tech itself is partly to blame. There has not been enough direct technological innovation applied to the political sphere itself. Technology has the option to give us truly participatory democracy, but it has not done it. Technology has the option to give us rich, robust, grassroots discussions. It has not done it. The impending age of abundance means everyone can eat, there is no overpopulation, but it will not happen on its own. I think where Paul Graham falls short is in not being able to see that maybe political innovation will also happen. Unless the purchasing power of the masses goes up exponentially, we can not create the truly super rich, and we will not be a multi-planetary species. In the age of abundance, there should be a floor beneath which no human being falls. And that floor keeps rising because productivity keeps going up, and rather fast.

This essay is remarkable social and political (and economic) insight by a dude only known for tech startups.

I happen to think we have to start by creating a world government. For one, we have an existential reason to do so. There is no other way to coordinate the fight with Climate Change. And other good things follow. Only one person one vote taken to its logical, global conclusion will give us the kind of political innovation we need. Right now the political systems of the world simply do not create enough pressure. The only reason Google floats is because enough people click on its ads. Right now nobody is voting at the global level. A head of state is only one person.

Barack Obama: FDR, Lincoln And Washington

Maybe Paul Graham should put some of his Dropbox money into my Kickstarter campaign. It's only 60K. I intend to disrupt global group dynamics.

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Stay Tuned for the Technological Transformation of Governance
Just as early waves of technological innovation in education and health care simply attempted to digitize old practices — putting an analog class into a MOOC or a patient’s file into the cloud — early forays into governmental technology involved bringing civil services online and enabling citizens to follow government protocols on websites instead of in buildings. .....

new governance technologies preparing to reroute lines of authority and change what it means to be a citizen in the 21st century.

....... Others are helping teams to build consensus and budget together, dynamically and elegantly. Still others are creating operating systems for political parties that are already winning seats in government. .....

Whether we're facing climate apocalypse on Earth or colonizing Mars, the deciding factor between human civilization being extractive and oppressive, or cooperative and generative, will be how much we as a species have practiced the skills of equitable collaboration on a day-to-day basis — hearing diverse viewpoints and synthesizing them, consciously understanding the flows of power dynamics, and designing in the key factors of human wellness.

......... Human beings have been sitting in circles listening to one another for millennia, but software and the internet allow us to scale up these practices in a way we never have before. ....... Cobudget for funding and Loomio for decision-making. ........ Many of the worst aspects of command-and-control, mechanistic, hierarchical governance are consequences of limited communications technologies. If we can make distributed cooperation just as efficient, the need for those old governance forms — which cause a lot of human suffering in the name of efficiency — could be obviated. ..... The key difference is: are you privatizing everything, or are you building the commons? The real distinguishing factor isn't the governing practices, which may be similar to a point, but the governing purpose. Are we building in service of the people and the community, deeply rooted in social values and human rights, or are we in service of private interests, which only answer to their own internal logic of profit and power? ....... Already, in our network, Enspiral, where we run businesses in service of positive social outcomes, we constantly have to 'hack' company structures to make them reflect how we actually want to work. We're sticking to the law, of course, but there's some legal gymnastics involved and we're constantly having to blaze a trail. Are we a community? A company? A charity? None of the current forms actually quite fit, and the distinctions seem contrived. ........ One of the protections against government corruption in democracies is that the moment of the vote is hidden and blind. ......

the very idea that our key moment of agency as a citizen is ticking a box every three or four years is the insane part

..... Our 'democratic' system is another example of something developed a couple hundred years ago because of very limited communications technology — election dates in the US are still determined by how long it took people to go on horseback between cities. ..... What's actually incredible is when you create a society where people not only feel safe being open about their political opinions, but they genuinely discuss them with different people, and their opinion can evolve through that interaction — they can change their minds.

When citizen deliberation is possible, that's when truly amazing solutions can emerge, from synthesizing different views.

......... What can users of SMS-enabled mobile banking in Africa teach us about how our apps could work? People in warzones and disaster areas know a ton about decentralized networks, because centralised infrastructure fails them. Activists threatened by oppressive governments have heaps to teach us about privacy, identity, and leveraging online communications tools for effective action and resistance. ....... most people in this space are running completely analog processes using technologies like neighborhood meetings and science-fair like exhibitions of citizen-generated ideas. They are willing to pound the pavement.

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