Economics Society Technology

The Reconn Reader: 13 September, 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

To be sure, ruling right-wing nationalist parties scored spectacular victories in the European Parliament election in Poland and Hungary and continue to defy EU censure over the rule of law and civil rights. But Poland’s de facto leader, Jarosław Kaczyński, may lose his absolute parliamentary majority in an October general election despite his popular combination of welfarism and Catholic nationalist social conservatism. Meanwhile, fears of an illiberal populist wave sweeping the whole of Central Europe have proved overblown, with a liberal democrat winning the Slovakian presidential election and billionaire Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babiš facing mass protests over his alleged conflicts of interest. (

What Will It Take to Rescue Argentina’s Economy?

According to Burke-White, Macri’s poor showing in the latest primaries reveals that he has “alienated really both sides of the Argentine political debate.” A key factor in that was his about-face on capital controls. “Macri had long been in favor of removing the capital controls that were in place under President Kirchner before him with the goal of allowing people to save in dollars and allowing businesses to operate and to exchange currencies freely,” he said. “And then he had to reverse course. [He had to] take a big IMF loan and put in place the same currency controls that he had been advocating against for a long time because the economy was in such dire straits.” (Wharton)

How climate change is driving emigration from Central America

These trends have led experts at the World Bank to claim that around 2 million people are likely to be displaced from Central America by the year 2050 due to factors related to climate change. Of course, it’s hard to tease out the “push factor” of climate change from all of the other reasons that people need to leave. And unfortunately, these phenomena interact and tend to exacerbate each other. Scholars are working hard to assess the scale of the problem and study ways people can adapt. But the problem is challenging. The number of displaced could be even higher – up to almost 4 million – if regional development does not shift to more climate-friendly and inclusive models of agriculture. (The Conversation)

He is pro-China. She is pro-Hong Kong. They had a heart-to-heart over boba

Sung says she avoids tension by not talking about her activism with friends she knows to disagree with. “Online, you seek people with similar views. But in real life, friends are your neighbors or whatever that you cannot choose in the same way … if you know they don’t agree, you don’t talk about that part of your life.” Which brings us to another key issue: how do two intelligent people see events in Hong Kong in such starkly different ways? (Inkstone)

Brexit threatens to reopen old wounds in Northern Ireland

Peace has been good for Belfast. The city centre is now full of restaurants and gay bars — unthinkable a decade or so ago. New buildings have risen on the waterfront around the Titanic museum (the ship was built by the Harland & Wolff shipyard, whose giant yellow gantries still loom over the water). But old Belfast is still there. The streets whose names are synonymous with the Troubles, the Catholic Falls Road and the Protestant Shankill Road, are decorated with murals of the conflict but look battered and old. There is little desire to take down the “peace lines” — barriers up to 8m high running between Protestant and Catholic housing to reduce daily friction. Schools remain almost completely segregated. (Financial Times)



Business & Economics

Religious groups said some congregations would struggle to pay for full employment benefits for their leaders if they were converted from independent contractors to employees. “For smaller ones that operate on very small budgets, it could force them to lay off their rabbi or maybe only hire them part time,” said Nathan Diament, the public policy director for the Orthodox Union Advocacy Center. Even drivers for Uber and Lyft have been split on the bill. Some of them visited lawmakers’ offices in Sacramento to plead their case for employment status. Others objected to the bill, worrying that it would take away their ability to switch their work on and off just by opening an app. (New York Times)

Is Your Company Socially Responsible?

Going back to the previous question — this is no longer a fringe activity when you have Larry Fink at BlackRock — a $17 trillion asset manager — not once, but in two annual letters to stakeholders saying, “We are now expecting you, our stakeholders, to report regularly on environmental, social and governance (ESG) because we have a fiduciary responsibility.” I think also you look at another businessperson like Mike Bloomberg, who is an early supporter of something called SASB — Sustainability Accounting Standards Board. This is really allowing the huge publicly traded companies to do the apples-to-apples comparisons for their investors, their employees and the larger public. This is mainstream now.  (Wharton)

Are big corporations paying enough tax?

Do companies like Apple and Amazon pay a fair amount of tax? Some think not. A growing number of companies such as Amazon don’t report much profit, while highly profitable companies like Apple can use legal accounting schemes to shift profits to countries with low taxes. There are possible solutions, but they may not be effective, or easy to apply. (Financial Times)

Companies are taking advantage of their new ability to track their workers

It is not just car insurance. Customers of Ping An, a Chinese insurer that is the world’s biggest, can use the firm’s facial-recognition software when registering accounts. One of the data-points extracted from a face is a person’s body-fat percentage, which is fed into the algorithm that calculates their life-insurance premiums. In 2018 John Hancock Financial, an American firm, said in future it would sell only health-insurance policies that can make use of data gathered from smartphones or wearable devices such as Fitbits, which track how much exercise policyholders are taking. Beam, an American dental-insurance firm, supplies policy-holders with internet-connected smart toothbrushes. Diligent brushers can save 15% on the cost of their premiums. (The Economist)


Science & Technology

“Things that could set me off are pancakes, honeycomb, or lotus heads (the worst!),” she wrote. “It sounds ridiculous but so many people actually have it!” But why would these images of harmless stuff possibly bother people? Some scientists are trying to figure out why people cringe at close-up photos of objects as innocuous as a frothy latte. They have found that even those who don’t feel repulsed by such images often feel uncomfortable looking at a bunch of small holes clustered together. Just as stripes can cause headaches and flashing lights can induce seizures, clusters of holes might have a physiological effect on the brain. Researcher Arnold Wilkins, a professor emeritus at the University of Essex, theorizes that the mathematical principles hidden in the patterns require the brain to use more oxygen and energy, which can be distressing. (Washington Post)

Meet the “artificial embryos” being called uncanny and spectacular

The concern is that if scientists could make human embryos in the lab, someone might use the systems to generate genetically modified people, a dystopian scenario similar to the central hatcheries described in the novel Brave New WorldLast December, Martinez Arias joined Fu and several others who wrote an editorial calling on regulators to permit scientific research with the models but enact a legal prohibition on using them to try to start a pregnancy. “We urge regulators to ban the use of stem-cell-based entities for reproductive purposes,” they said. (MIT Tech Review)

The Anthropologist of Artificial Intelligence

Directly inspired by the Nobel Prize-winning biologist Nikolaas Tinbergen’s four questions — which analyzed animal behavior in terms of its function, mechanisms, biological development and evolutionary history — machine behavior aims to empirically investigate how artificial agents interact “in the wild” with human beings, their environments and each other. A machine behaviorist might study an AI-powered children’s toy, a news-ranking algorithm on a social media site, or a fleet of autonomous vehicles. But unlike the engineers who design and build these systems to optimize their performance according to internal specifications, a machine behaviorist observes them from the outside in — just as a field biologist studies flocking behavior in birds, or a behavioral economist observes how people save money for retirement. (Quanta)

New Clues Found in Understanding Near-Death Experiences

Because near-death experiences (NDEs) can be transformational and have profound and lasting effects on those who experience them, including a sense of fearlessness about death, the authors propose that ketamine could be used therapeutically to induce an NDE-like state in terminally ill patients as a “preview” of what they might experience, so as to relieve their anxieties about death. Those benefits need to be weighed against the risks of potential ketamine side effects, which include feelings of panic or extreme anxiety, effects that could defeat the purpose of the intervention.  (Scientific American)

Culture & History

Homo Narrativus and the Trouble with Fame

‘A Horrifying Reality’: An Oral
History of Coming Out on Wall Street

I think I was the first lesbian on a Wall Street trading floor about 25 years ago. Being closeted generally is really painful and takes up an enormous amount of energy. It’s a terrible waste of talent and humanity and creativity and productivity. It took me about a year to go through the process. I finally came out, and I will never know if it did any damage to my career. But I don’t think so. I would even argue that I wouldn’t be where I am were it not for coming out, because I have been able to direct all my energy into my purpose.  (Institutional Investor)

Mouse vs. Cat in Chinese Literature

The quotidian details of mouse life recapitulate the salient junctures of human life in pre-modern China: sending one’s child out into the world, navigating an implacable bureaucracy, and coping with death. As such, the lurch which many versions make from the merely Rabelaisian into more elemental violence wrought against the mice (in keeping with the story’s Buddhist overtones and settings) is affecting. As one tragic mouse disclaims: “What I fear most are those ignorant people who want to have some fun / And put a black bean up my asshole / And sew it tight with a needle and thread / Killing me in such a way that all turns black before my eyes / And in my panic I’ll bite half my children to death.”  (Hong Kong Review of Books)

On the History of the Artificial Womb

Of course, concern about the intersection of ectogenesis and eugenics was most famously drawn out in Huxley’s Brave New World, which became the high-water mark in this decade-long public conversation about the future of pregnancy.  Huxley, who moved in the same milieu as Haldane and Russell, was directly critiquing their earlier utopianism in his novel. One reviewer even suggested that Huxley’s book was a “revolution against Utopia.” If using science to replace women’s bodies with artificial contraptions had suggested liberation in the early 1920s, by the mid-1930s, as Europe lurched toward another world war, this utopianism was replaced by a fearful pessimism about what might happen when fascists take an interest in bio-technology and eugenics—a fear that was to play out with horrifying consequences in the following decade. (JSTOR)


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