Thoughts in Between

by Matt Clifford

Matt's Thoughts In Between - Issue #29

Forwarded this email? Subscribe here.

Norms, institutions and Trump

I've generally tried to avoid discussing Trump too much in TiB, partly because it's hard to do without ending up in some quite parochial culs-de-sac. However, the President's terrible week is a good jumping off point for a broader reflection on the role of norms in liberal societies.

As Jack Goldsmith point out in an excellent short piece, the actual latitude available to a US president in Trump's position is enormous (Jim Baker adds more here). He has multiple "nuclear options", from blanket pardons to firing dozens of officials. In normal times, however, these would be unthinkable - but only because they violate the norms that political elites tacitly agree to live by. How secure is liberal democracy if a president just doesn't care about these? Perhaps not very; even a government designed to be "of laws, not men" turns out to rely a good deal on the men (people!).

This point is hammered home in Cass Sunstein's excellent review this week of three books that look at the rise of Nazism in the 1930s (worth reading in parallel with the piece on "opting out" of public life from a couple of weeks ago). Both the US and the UK are a long way from that (a good thread for remembering that), but it's striking just how fragile the system looks when you remove even the least concrete foundations.

Do you get the government you pay for?

So what do we do if we want better elected officials? One hypothesis is that we should pay them more. I was reminded this week of Singapore's extraordinary approach to politicians' pay: "The current total annual salary of an entry level Minister is benchmarked to 60% of the median income of the top 1,000 earners who are Singapore Citizens" - which translates into a $900,000 salary. There's much, much more here and this thread is a great summary (Don't miss the part on the bonus structure!)

One key point is that even people who are not primarily motivated by money have their aspirations distorted by wildly differing remuneration between sectors. You may not want to own a yacht, but you still feel a mug if people who you believe are no more talented or skilled than you are earning multiples of your salary.

Of course, it's also possible to reduce the importance of money in status competition. Noah Smith makes an interesting point that as society gets more complex, there are more ways to win the "status game". But is that a good thing in government? Perhaps the (non-Singaporean) politicians who are most willing to take the financial hit are those who are most motivated by wielding power, which may not be what we want to optimise for...

Anti-social media?

The tech giants have become the new acceptable punching bag for politicians. Some of this is the result of Facebook's alleged role in undermining democracy (see previous TiB discussion), but it also stems from the traditional media's (understandable) mistrust of Facebook, Google, et al, which means that any evidence that the new platforms are responsible for social decay gets a lot of traction.

This week the New York Times published an extraordinary story based on an academic paper that suggests that towns with more Facebook usage see more attacks on refugees. Hal Hodson of the Economist is skeptical - his takedown is worth a read - but it's an interesting signal of Facebook's increasingly pantomime villain-like role in international media narrative. Motherboard's long read on the extreme challenges Facebook faces policing its content only underlines how there will always be a horror story that the company has to explain or defend.

The data suggests that the impact of social media is far from uniformly negative. The Economist has a great chart on the impact major platforms have on well being, with apparent benefits for expression, identity and emotional support. (Can you guess before you click through what the biggest reported negative impact is?)

It's also worth remembering that this is a landscape that changes quickly, both in the US and China. Today's behemoth is tomorrow's MySpace.

Quick links

It's grim, but also lovely, up North. YouGov publishes a list of the most loved and hated cities in the UK. And more bad news for Yorkshire.

Why do all summer songs sound the same? Superb exploration by the New York Times. (Lots of parallels with startups here...)

Bad news for vegans. Do plants feel pain?

All change at the top. Great chart on changing composition of America's 10 largest companies.

Funding secured. The bull case for Tesla.

Your feedback

Thanks for reading. If you have feedback or links to share, just hit reply. And if you like this, please forward to a friend and encourage them to subscribe.

Until next week,