a blog

by Josh Nicholas

Is Google a monopolist?

competition should not be defined by some arbitrary number of producers, but by whether other firms are free to enter the market. Ultimately, market entry is the key prerequisite of innovation. If the state imposes constraints on that freedom in such a way as to establish or maintain a single private or public producer’s market dominance, then it has created a harmful monopoly, by severely limiting opportunities for innovation.

Not sure I agree with this... This may be true for most goods but does not factor in the global, network effects of online spaces.

Let us return to the EU’s recent actions. The Commission levied its June 2017 fine because Google prioritized its own “comparative shopping service” over those of its competitors. And yet, anyone who uses Google and its various services does so freely, not because Google is somehow forcing them. They could just as well use other services, so their decision to use Google must mean that Google provides the service most useful to them.

Pascal Salin at Project Syndicate

The importance of local news

Following a newspaper closure, we find municipal borrowing costs increase by 5 to 11 basis points in the long run. Identification tests illustrate that these results are not being driven by deteriorating local economic conditions. The loss of monitoring that results from newspaper closures is associated with increased government inefficiencies, including higher likelihoods of costly advance refundings and negotiated issues, and higher government wages, employees, and tax revenues.

Read the paper

Trapped by the destiny instinct

Within seconds of arriving at Tel Aviv airport I was pulled aside and questioned by officials. As far as I can tell, I was the first and only passenger to be treated this way.

This was compounded by similar treatment at the immigration counter, and the knot in my chest has only grown with each lingering stare by a security guard or IDF member.

In some respects I saw this coming. I'm young, brown and male. I'm ethnically ambiguous and have been projected on to by people as diverse as lovely Portuguese tourists and German racists.

But this fresh experience has reminded me of something I recently read in Factfulness by the late, great Hans Rosling. Something he called the destiny instinct:

The destiny instinct is the idea that innate characteristics determine the destinies of people, countries, religions, or cultures. It's the idea that things are as they are for ineluctable, inescapable reasons: they have always been this way and will never change.

All airport security dude wanted to know was where my passport was from and who my parents were. After finding the white woman who had previously passed him was my mother, my passport is Australian, and my father's name is a rather banal Christopher (this was an actual question), he summarily lost interest.

Here's what I haven't been able to let go since - not one question was about something I can control. My skin is sufficient to condemn me. My white mother and the historical accident of my Australian birth were enough to earn a reprieve.

There were no questions about my interest in Israel, education, career, religion, who I associate with, or anything else over which I actually have some power.

His line of questioning betrays thinking trapped by poor assumptions. In essence, that there is something about me that can only be discerned by looking at my parents. That birth is a straight jacket and identities are linear.

This is the ultimate in nature over nurture.

I'm going to stop now, before I extrapolate too far from this one data point. Except, it isn't really just one is it? I was put on the defensive from the moment I arrived. Told that there is something suspicious not in who I am, but where and who I come from.

And now this is all I can see in the eyes of everyone I look at. Even if its all in my head, I too have become trapped by the destiny instinct.

Skin colour and wages

...we focus on individuals who “passed for White,” an important social phenomenon at the time. To do so, we identify individuals coded “Mulatto” as children but “White” as adults. Passing meant that individuals changed their racial affiliation by changing their social presentation while skin color remained unchanged. Comparing passers to their siblings who did not pass, we find that passing was associated with substantially higher earnings, suggesting that social presentations of race could have significant consequences for economic outcomes...

We find that about 10–13% of 1910 Mulattoes were classified as White in 1940, and Mulattoes who passed for White earned 31–42% more than non-passers. Because passers tended to be more educated than non-passers, the increase in earnings from being classified as White decreases when we control for education, though it remains considerable at 20–31%... Passers earned 14–21% more than their brothers who did not pass.

Read the paper

Technology and society as chicken and egg

Is Twitter the cause or the by-product of our half-baked public discourse? Paper by Mark Kurlanksy is a thinly veiled rumination on this question.

Not Twitter exactly, but whether technology shapes society or is instead shaped by it. Kurlanky comes down very much on the latter.

It wasn’t paper and ink that spurred bureaucracy, philosophy, religion, drawing, painting, widespread literacy, or the accumulation and harmonisation of knowledge.

Rather, these technologies filled a pre-existing need, slotting in to a revolution that was well underway. Gutenberg didn't so much kick-start modern mass literacy and learning, as pour petrol on the fire.

A technology that is intended to redirect society will usually fail. In fact, most technology companies do not introduce new technology but new ways to use ideas that already exist.

Of course, Paper is very much a micro-history of, well, paper. Full of anecdotes of European water wheels, wind mills, buddhist monks and holy books. I’ve learned all I ever need to about the acid content of paper and the differences between rags and wood pulp.

But it’s Kurlanky’s reversal of technological causality that really makes this book worthwhile. Especially in the last few decades, we have become very adept at ignoring survivor bias and lesser-known forerunners, giving an extraordinary amount of credit to the Jobs, Zuckerbergs and Pages.

As if Google drove the internet rather than systematising and building upon the work of portals and curators like Yahoo. This is not to take away from these amazing technologies and technologists, but who really had the agency when it came to Google?

In his seminal work Das Kapital, Karl Marx said that the Luddites failed because they opposed the machines instead of the society. He observed: “The Luddites’ mistake was that they failed to distinguish between machinery and its employment by capital, and to direct their attacks, not against the material instruments of production, but against the mode in which they are used.” In other words, it is futile to denounce technology itself. Rather, you have to try to change the operation of the society for which the technology was created...

You cannot warn about what a new technology will do to a society because that society has already made the shift. That was Marx’s point about the Luddites. Technology is only a facilitator. Society changes, and that change creates new needs. That is why the technology is brought in. The only way to stop the technology would be to reverse the changes in the society.

I’m not sure if Kurlanksy has me entirely convinced. But it certainly bears thinking about.