Thoughts in Between

by Matt Clifford

Matt's Thoughts In Between - Issue #31

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Who's afraid of big bad Amazon?

As discussed in previous TiBs, the tech giants are the new whipping boys for politicians and regulators. This week saw another set of Senate hearings for Facebook, Twitter et al (Google noticeably sent a much less senior exec than these two, perhaps a sign of confidence?).

More, interesting, though for understanding the long term political economy of tech was this piece in the New York Times, on efforts to redefine antitrust regulation to encompass Amazon's unusual form of dominance. It's a bold claim, as prices for consumers - the classic way of assessing monopoly power - are lower than ever and, as Amazon notes, it represents less than 1% of retail globally. However, Lina Khan, the lawyer whose argument is the subject of the NYT piece, argues that the company has enormous power beyond mere pricing, with implications for quality, innovation and investment and that intervention is needed.

Not everyone is impressed by the reasoning, but some policymakers certainly are. Khan is now a senior advisor to a Federal Trade Commissioner and her ideas are gaining influence in Washington. When even central bankers start worrying about an Amazon effect, it's clear that we're just at the beginning of a prolonged set of skirmishes between big tech and the nation state.

The new centre in British politics

IPPR, a centre-left-leaning UK think tank, this week published Prosperity and Justice, the report from its Commission on Economic Justice, a two-year effort to lay out a vision and plan for the post-Brexit UK economy. (Full disclosure: I was one of the Commissioners who advised IPPR, alongside much more eminent figures like the Archibishop of Canterbury and the Global Managing Director of McKinsey).

It's a weighty report, with recommendations across the economy, including industrial policy, tax and corporate governance (and, indeed, regulating big tech...) There's been a huge amount of commentary everywhere from the New York Times and the FT to the Daily Mail and the Sun.

I'll probably return to the actual content in future TiBs, but for me one of the most surprising things about the report is the breadth of support it has attracted across the political spectrum - including both the Corbynite and Blairite wings of the Labour Party and a number of Tories. As the Economist notes, it's evidence of a surprising new "centre" in British politics - the belief that structural inequalities of power need to be addressed for markets to work efficiently and fairly. Weirdly, that's the sort of conclusion we might have expected from the events of 2008; if a week is a long time in politics, how long is ten years?

How to get happy: Quit your job and start a company?

Rob Wiblin at 80,000 Hours, one of the most consistently interesting sites on the web, has a fascinating post discussing research on major life decisions and happiness. In summary, the research uses an unusual randomised experiment to estimate the causal effect on happiness of making major life changes, such as quitting your job or ending a relationship.

Remarkably, the conclusion is that making these decisions have large and statistically significant effects on happiness - equivalent to over two "points" on a 1-10 scale of happiness. Of course, you can quibble with the experiment, but Rob does an excellent job of testing the robustness of the experiment and on balance it seems fairly secure (even given last week's discussion on the replication crisis...)

I can't help but think of my day job, a big part of which involves helping brilliant people to quit their jobs and become entrepreneurs. Interestingly, this is one of the life decisions that the study looks at - and the results accord with my anecdotal experience: the effect is large and positive on average, but the variance is extremely high (though not as high as proposing, it turns out...)

Quick links

  1. Just do it? The brand impact of Nike's Kaepernick campaign.
  2. Unradical socialism. The surprising economic conservatism of Jeremy Corbyn
  3. Panda bear. An interesting negative outlook on China.
  4. Padded shoulders. If you could have access to any human to consult on demand, who would it be?
  5. Back when the young were conservative... The hawkishness of the Baby Boomers.

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Until next week,