Thoughts in Between

by Matt Clifford

Matt's Thoughts In Between - Issue #35

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Amazon, activism and the minimum wage

Amazon announced this week that it would pay all its US workers at least $15 an hour. It followed an activist campaign by Bernie Sanders, among others, to push the retailer to pay higher wages. Bernie celebrated (and dropped his "Stop BEZOS Act"), but there's been a lot of commentary on what to make of the move.

Derek Thompson has an interesting piece in the Atlantic that argues that this is (another) Bezos strategic masterstroke: not only does this buy political capital, but it puts huge pressure on competitors who either cannot afford $15 wages or are less able to substitute robot for human labour (great video) than Amazon is. Some have argued that the very fact that Amazon can do this shows just how much market power it has (and how economically "safe" higher minimum wages are).

Beyond the immediate impact, though, it's interesting to think about what the ripple-through effects on the broader US and tech economies might be. Conor Sen has an interesting column on how higher wages at Amazon might change the way working-class Americans think about work.

Whatever the impact, it's another striking sign of just how much the internet giants are making the political weather these days.

Amazon (again), Apple and Chinese spying

In another example of this phenomenon, the biggest story in "tech meets geopolitics" this week was Bloomberg's deeply reported story on Chinese tech-enabled spying. Bloomberg claims that China infiltrated major US companies, including Apple and Amazon, by placing tiny chips on (Chinese-made) motherboards that were purchased by US firms. It's a stunning claim that touches many hot button topics we've discussed before, from tech firms as national security assets to China's race to catch the US in semiconductor technology.

The only problem is... everyone involved in the story denies that it's true in vociferous terms - from Apple to Amazon to the US Department of Justice. Lots of smart people are skeptical about the story, yet Bloomberg has a hard-won reputation for rigorous reporting that they (presumably) wouldn't risk without a lot of certainty.

What to think? There's been some good commentary on the geopolitical angle and the broader fallout in the tech industry. But ultimately it's very puzzling and probably will be for some time. It's hard to beat this as a summary:

I think this Bloomberg "chip spy" story boils down to one basic point. The real problem is that some of the smartest, brilliant minded, rational people who are experts in this field have no idea who to believe on this story. I'm an idiot — and I have no clue, either.

Culture wars and academic rigour

We've talked before about the replication crisis in academic psychology. This week three academics claimed to have revealed an even more fundamental rot in corners of the humanities: that whole subject areas have been reduced to "grievance studies" where adopting the fashionable jargon and normative judgements trumps rigour or academic merit.

To demonstrate this, the group wrote fake papers - with titles such as “Human Reaction to Rape Culture and Queer Performativity at Urban Dog Parks in Portland, Oregon” - which they submitted to various journals in gender studies and related fields. By this week, when they revealed that this was an elaborate hoax, 13 of these papers had either been published or were advancing in the review process.

On the one hand, this certainly looks extraordinarily bad for the journals, and perhaps even the whole subfields, in question (The reviewer comments are certainly very amusing). But how broad are the conclusions we can draw? There has been some interesting pushback from people far to the right of the editors of Gender, Place and Culture. And unusual academic norms are not just a problem on the left, as Henry Farrell's excellent is-it-a-parody? demonstrates.

The culture wars show no signs of dying down and academia is, right now, one of the fiercest battlegrounds.

Quick links

Disagreeable results. When and why do nice guys finish last?

Lost decade envy. How bad has Britain's economy been over the last 10 years? Spoiler: very bad.

"Incredible" chart. What do people mean by "incredible"? or "terrible"? or just "OK"? Fascinating graphic from YouGov.

London burning? Which is safer, London or New York? It's not even close.

Who's responsible for US polarisation? Did Democrats become more liberal or Republicans more conservative? Interesting nuanced answer.

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Until next week,