Economics Society Technology

The Reconn Reader: 16 August, 2019

Each week, I share some of the most interesting articles I’ve come across in the past seven days. Here is this week’s selection. Inclusion does not mean endorsement. -CA


World & Politics

In game of Brexit chicken, Boris Johnson driving a Mini, Brussels is driving a bus

He’s currently pretending to play a chicken game with Brussels. He bangs the table and bellows that he’s not going to swerve on the backstop, so if Brussels won’t swerve either there’ll be a crash and we’ll all get badly hurt. But Johnson is driving a Mini while Brussels is driving a bus – with Leo Varadkar sitting at the front of the top deck, looking anxiously out the window. All of this is hopefully not a real do-or-die chicken game, more a Punch and Judy show to amuse hardcore supporters while the key players are all on holiday. (Irish Times)

The global gag on free speech is tightening

According to Freedom House, a watchdog, free speech has declined globally over the past decade. The most repressive regimes have become more so: among those classed as “not free” by Freedom House, 28% have tightened the muzzle in the past five years; only 14% have loosened it. “Partly free” countries were as likely to improve as to get worse, but “free” countries regressed. Some 19% of them (16 countries) have grown less hospitable to free speech in the past five years, while only 14% have improved (see map). (The Economist)

Demographic Decline and the End of Capitalism as We Know It

As they write, “We do not face the challenge of a population bomb but a population bust—a relentless, generation-after-generation culling of the human herd.” Already, the signs of the coming bust are clear, at least according to the data that Bricker and Ibbitson marshal. Almost every country in Europe now has a fertility rate below the 2.1 births per woman that is needed to maintain a static population. The UN notes that in some European countries, the birthrate has increased in the past decade. But that has merely pushed the overall European birthrate up from 1.5 to 1.6, which means that the population of Europe will still grow older in the coming decades and contract as new births fail to compensate for deaths. That trend is well under way in Japan, whose population has already crested, and in Russia, where the same trends, plus high mortality rates for men, have led to a decline in the population.  (Foreign Affairs)

The Incredible Sinking Argentina

Barring a miracle for Macri, Fernández will assume the presidency on Dec. 10. The president tweeted a few days after the vote that he and Fernández had talked and that the presumptive next leader “showed willingness to try to bring calm to markets.” What he inherits will depend more, though, on what he and his rival can do together in the interim to address default expectations, the real economy, inflation, savings, and any number of other factors that could sink the economy yet further. Markets are wary, but Argentines have long since grown accustomed to whiplash. Politics are “a seesaw that comes and goes,” says Ruben Haleblian, a 70-year-old vendor in an electronics store in downtown Buenos Aires. “I already lived it several times.” (Bloomberg)


Business & Economics

The New Servant Class

Wealth work falls into two basic categories. First, full-time retail and service jobs at places like nail salons and spas. “You’re talking about people with $30,000 incomes that are often employed in high-wealth metro areas, or resort economies,” Muro said. Because they often cannot afford to live near their place of work, they endure long commutes from lower-cost neighborhoods. These arrangements aren’t merely time-consuming; they can also be exploitative. For example, New York City nail salons are notorious for flouting minimum-wage laws and other labor regulations, and massage parlors across Florida have served as fronts for human trafficking. (CityLab)

It’s Time to Reboot the Startup Economy

Economic structure matters, and I fear that the United States is losing a vital capacity: of being the best place for new industries to get their start. We are becoming a country of giant concerns, admirable in their way, but where incremental improvement is the norm, where bureaucracy rules, and stagnation may be inevitable. We will become a country where inventors and entrepreneurs dream of being bought, not of building something of their own. While it once seemed impossible, the Internet is becoming the case study of that development. (Medium)


Google didn’t invent all the concepts that charged its culture. (“Obligation to dissent,” for example, is borrowed from the management consulting firm McKinsey.) But it tied them together into a coherent, aspirational narrative about engineers as a free-thinking people uniquely capable of reconfiguring the world from first principles. This culture helped recruiting, it helped retention, and it kept the public and regulators rapt with admiration. So what if Google was becoming inordinately powerful? The monopolies of the past engaged in price-gouging and became less inventive. Google’s products stayed free and continued to blow your mind. (WIRED)

What comes after Bretton Woods II?

A minimally disruptive end to Bretton Woods II remains within the realms of possibility. Its fate might resemble that of Bretton Woods I, especially if Mr Trump loses office in 2020. Democrats are more economically nationalistic than they used to be, but still mindful of the value of global co-operation. President Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren might seek a one-off depreciation of the dollar while recommitting America to a rules-based system of global trade. A recession in China could scare its leadership into offering concessions on trade that America would accept. (The Economist)


Science & Technology

Yet arguments that the humanities will save STEM from itself are untenably thin. Trusting academic humanities to save technologists both misses the real problem and sets the humanities up for failure. As a National Academies report put it, despite “abundant narrative and anecdotal evidence” about the benefits of integrating STEM and humanities education, “causal evidence on the impact of integration … is limited.” Scholars did find evidence of improved critical thinking and retention, but there was nothing about behaving more ethically. (Washington Post)

Racing toward Absolute Zero

The journey towards absolute zero began in the early 1700s when Guillaume Amontons contended that if temperature is the measure of heat in a system, then there must be a lowest possible temperature. Yet it wasn’t until two centuries later that Amontons’ theory would find its place in experimentation. At Leiden University, Heike Kamerlingh Onnes and his colleagues raced against others around the world to develop techniques to liquify helium. After many failed attempts, they succeeded, and says Dirk van Delft, director of Museum Boerhaave, the Dutch National Museum for the History of Science and Medicine, “Leiden briefly became the coldest place on Earth.” (Scientific American)

The transhumanists who want to live forever

Given these clues, Clement is expanding his medicine cabinet of pills. So far he has financed and supervised four small studies, in volunteers, of treatments found to extend the healthy lives of rodents—the immune drug rapamycin, the supplement NAD+, a combination of compounds that kill off aged cells, and injections of plasma concentrated from umbilical cords. His aim is “to do as many small trials as possible” to generate and publish basic information on safety and possible benefits. With that, he says, people interested in life extension “can decide to take the risk.” (MIT Tech Review)


OK, let’s go back to the fan cart from above. Suppose I want to look at this problem using the work-energy principle instead of the momentum principle. In that case, I need one extra thing—the distance over which the force is applied. From that same fan video, the force pushes the cart over a distance of about 0.79 meters. Now I can calculate the work (the angle is zero degrees) with a value of 0.11 Joules. If I set this equal to the final kinetic energy, I can solve for the final velocity and I get 0.528 m/s. Boom. That’s essentially the same thing as with the momentum principle. (WIRED)

Culture & History

American Capitalism Is Brutal. You Can Trace That to the Plantation.

When an accountant depreciates an asset to save on taxes or when a midlevel manager spends an afternoon filling in rows and columns on an Excel spreadsheet, they are repeating business procedures whose roots twist back to slave-labor camps. And yet, despite this, “slavery plays almost no role in histories of management,” notes the historian Caitlin Rosenthal in her book “Accounting for Slavery.” Since the 1977 publication of Alfred Chandler’s classic study, “The Visible Hand,” historians have tended to connect the development of modern business practices to the 19th-century railroad industry, viewing plantation slavery as precapitalistic, even primitive. It’s a more comforting origin story, one that protects the idea that America’s economic ascendancy developed not because of, but in spite of, millions of black people toiling on plantations. But management techniques used by 19th-century corporations were implemented during the previous century by plantation owners. (New York Times)

Mapping Non-European Visions of the World

In addition to mapping the town’s boundaries, the Teozacoalco pintura records the name of the town as chiyo ca’nu, in the local Mixtec language name instead of the most widespread Nahuatl, from which Teozacoalco derives. It describes 46 logographic place-names, and 10 generations of local rulers. Smaller towns in Teozacoalco’s sphere of influence are shown connected by a network of rivers and roads. This pintura, unlike the more compact ones, has clearly been folded, unfolded, and refolded over time. Dark smudges along the map’s creases underscore that the map was a circulating object, part of Spain’s empire-building, as it would have gone with the relacion geográfica back to Spain. (Hyperallergic)

How Interrail became the modern Grand Tour

As much as it is a rejection of flying, I suspect it is also driven by a nostalgia for a slower world. A plane bumps down on the tarmac near a city in a postmodern way — you cannot describe how you got there. But the train, tugging its way around the topography of Europe, the unfolding of the landscape, the continuity of nations — what a way of seeing the world for a child. And the oldies are wising up, too. A quarter of passes are taken by travellers over the age of 26 and a further 11 per cent by senior citizens. The first generation of Interrailers must be back on the tracks again. (Financial Times)

How Multinationals Can Help Advance LGBT Inclusion Around the World

Engage in “Embassy-Advocacy.” Identify internal actions that drive toward the Advocate model without fully embracing it. For example, after Singapore prohibited foreign companies from funding the local LGBT “Pink Dot” festival, Dow hosted its own internal “Pink Dot Day.” Find small, symbolic ways to indicate support for LGBT rights, such as providing employees with Pride flags or pins or offering options to add inclusive language or even preferred pronouns to email signatures — an effort EY began rolling out in the U.S. last month. Such efforts allow people to “come out of the closet” as more proactive allies, while also making the company’s support for LGBT rights visible externally. In Hong Kong, some recent hires reported that they decided to join EY because the partner interviewing them was wearing a rainbow pin. (HBR)

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