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Links on the Margins - May 7th, 2020
End of Harvard, Amazon VP departure, on not being evil.
Hi there! Can here. If you are one of the few hundreds that just signed up, welcome. We send new issues twice a week. The first edition in the week is a list of links with some loose commentary, and the second is a long-form piece with ideally but not always tighter commentary. Ranjan and I alternate every week for both pieces.
This week’s list-o-links once again talks about the virus. But there’s more. We have a piece on how America’s crown jewels, its prestigious universities are slowly becoming beholden to influence coming from China. We keep talking about how big tech is slowly taking over not just our information flows, but entire economies as well. We also discuss how that might have come about, and go deep into the origin stories of Silicon Valley’s first disruptive and then bro-ish spirit. And always, there’s some good music and Amazon.
Kim Stanley Robinson — New Yorker
My parents used to “joke” that they were born in such an opportune time and a place they never experienced a worldwide crisis, but I probably wouldn’t be so lucky. They suffered through multiple coups d'état in Turkey, but the world overall did OK. There was no world war, as their parents and their grandparents experienced. The world kept turning. Well, the joke is on all of us now.
The world has now literally stopped. The human and the economic toll of the virus is overwhelming; the numbers are so astonishingly large and the graphs so mind-blowing, they no longer cross that cognitive chasm from the abstractions they are to representations of reality. There was no virus to see in the first place, but now even news about it doesn’t register. I’ve also resigned to my quarantine life.
But the virus’ impact on our psyche, and how we see the world around is harder to pick apart. What are some of the things we took for granted that we’ll never have again? What are some things that were unimaginable just a few months ago will become either daily habits or just a latent, baseline reality that we won’t even remember not having?
On a personal level, most of us have accepted that we live in a scientific age. If you feel sick, you go to a doctor, who is really a scientist; that scientist tests you, then sometimes tells you to take a poison so that you can heal—and you take the poison. It’s on a societal level that we’ve been lagging. Today, in theory, everyone knows everything. We know that our accidental alteration of the atmosphere is leading us into a mass-extinction event, and that we need to move fast to dodge it. But we don’t act on what we know. We don’t want to change our habits. This knowing-but-not-acting is part of the old structure of feeling.
Matteo N. Wong — The Crimson
While here in Silicon Valley, having a college degree is almost a bad mark on your resume (for some lucky few), for most of the world, what America does better than anyone else is higher education and no institution outside the US represents that more than Harvard. However, in the last decade or so, the dynamics have flipped. Now, Harvard might need China more than China needs Harvard. How does that change the soul of Harvard, and what does that mean for America?
Harvard has for years maintained a unique and symbiotic relationship with China, born out of a thick network of decades-old, grassroots connections. From its inception, the relationship has been inherently political, but Harvard has not refrained from criticizing the Chinese Communist Party. During his visit to Beijing last March, for instance, University President Lawrence S. Bacow read a Uighur poem in defense of academic freedom in his speech at Peking University; the same day, he had an audience with Chinese President Xi Jinping.
Though the Harvard-China relationship always entailed mutual benefit, it was for decades asymmetrical — China needed Harvard more than Harvard needed China, which perhaps gave the University more leeway to be critical of the Chinese government.
(Note: One of the defining experiences of my time in college was working at the student newspaper. While The Tartan existed more for its members than its readers, The Crimson is the only daily newspaper in Cambridge, Massachusetts. We had serious Crimson Envy, but we pretended we didn’t care. It was fun to stumble upon a piece from them.)
Elizabeth Dwoskin — Washington Post
A common saying in economics is that “The stock market is not the economy”. It’s true in a human sense. Most people don’t own stocks, and of those that do, very few really actively trade, which is a good thing. Most employment is provided by small businesses, not by publicly traded companies. But it is also true in a more institutional sense too: just like most of the stocks are held by a small number of institutions, a different but similarly small number of institutions now comprise the stock markets themselves. And the coronavirus situation is deepening that bifurcation. The economy might not be the stock market, but the stock market might just be tech companies at this rate.
And while the global economy faces potential unemployment and contraction not seen since the Great Depression, the tech giants — and a handful of medium-size ones — are already benefiting from new consumer habits initiated during the lockdowns that analysts believe will turn into longer-term shifts in how people shop, work and entertain themselves. The broader stock markets tanked in recent weeks, but share prices of Amazon and Microsoft hit at or near records. Facebook is moving to acquire high-skilled talent, announcing the hiring of 10,000 new workers this year.
My Amazon and treatment of essential workers rants must be having some impact with readers and friends because I was flooded with messages sending me this link. This post from Tim Bray captures nearly had me doing Occupy Wall Street twinkles at my computer:
Amazon is exceptionally well-managed and has demonstrated great skill at spotting opportunities and building repeatable processes for exploiting them. It has a corresponding lack of vision about the human costs of the relentless growth and accumulation of wealth and power. If we don’t like certain things Amazon is doing, we need to put legal guardrails in place to stop those things. We don’t need to invent anything new; a combination of antitrust and living-wage and worker-empowerment legislation, rigorously enforced, offers a clear path forward.
Fred Turner — Logic Magazine
As my Kindle queue remains roadblocked by two mischievous toddlers, rather than purchasing this just yet, I did make it through a wonderful interview (also sent in by a reader) that started helping give me much greater context into the whole Silicon Valley thing:
Burning Man is to the tech world what the nineteenth-century Protestant church was to the factory.
In the nineteenth century, if you lived in a small factory town, you’d work six days a week through Saturday. Then on Sunday, you’d go to church, and the bosses would sit up front, the middle managers would sit right behind them, and all the workers would sit in the back. You’d literally rehearse the order of the factory. You’d show, in the church, how you oriented all of your labor toward the glory of God.
Josh Brown aka The Reformed Broker
The same as I have not had time to read books, I’ve been deprived of diving into financial analyses and news. I’m avoiding anything too active on the investment side as the market has just lost its damn mind and terrifies me, but again, those damn kiddos and work are all I got time for (that, and writing Margins posts, naturally).
But, I have been following Warren Buffett’s latest and Josh Brown aka The Reformed Broker, captured the sense of the latest Berkshire “meeting” perfectly:
Unlike the feeling you had coming out of previous Berkshire Hathaway weekends – when risk was rewarded, long-termism was the only termism worth living and American-style capitalism would always prevail – this time, the message was not quite as crystal clear. Nor as relentlessly optimistic. You didn’t come away from this Saturday’s event humming the Rocky theme in your head.
Ellen Huet and Lizette Chapman — Bloomberg
In the handful of weeks since the fire alarm call, demand for Instacart has risen to a level investors didn’t expect to see before 2025. Instacart turned a surprise, first-ever monthly profit in April ($10 million), and says it’s on track to process more than $35 billion in grocery sales this year. That’s not a number normally associated with an upmarket delivery service. In terms of pre-pandemic e-commerce, it’s a Walmart or EBay number.
The pandemic has also added stress to the often-miserable working conditions of Instacart’s Uber-esque contract army, which has expanded from 180,000 to 500,000 in eight weeks and, if recruiting efforts are successful, will be closer to 750,000 this summer. Shoppers say they’re hard-pressed to stay 6 feet from everyone while wandering the aisles of grocery stores and have often had to work with inadequate protective gear. And, because the company classifies them as contractors rather than full-time employees, they don’t get workers’ compensation or traditional unemployment or health benefits, though they can now apply for Covid-19 emergency relief.
Joshua Benton — Nieman Lab
We actually started this newsletter as an attempt at a podcast. I think that’s why Can referred to me as his co-host in the first edition, and it stuck. Well, the New York Times is finally catching on :) (Emphasis mine)
All that is why I’m interested in today’s announcement from The New York Times about changes to its flagship morning newsletter, The Morning Briefing. For the first time, it’s getting a true host — David Leonhardt, the current Opinion columnist and past founder of The Upshot.
Saturday nights for me now consist of whiskey and watching YouTube concert footage of famous people covering other famous people. The video on this sucks, but the sound is perfect.