Thoughts in Between

by Matt Clifford

Matt's Thoughts In Between - Issue #66

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The end of a 100 year political duopoly?

Last week's European Parliament elections were unusually interesting. There's endless UK commentary on the results, most of it pure political Rorschach test, but the indispensable Chris Grey has the best guide to the results. There are lots of important stories from across Europe - especially the Green surge - but I want to focus on a broader topic: political realignment.

The breakdown of the traditional left/right economic divide as the major dimension of conflict in politics has been a favourite TiB topic (This Thomas Piketty essay remains the best overall guide). Brexit is just one example of the growing primacy of cultural issues for voters. This makes for political chaos in systems like the UK's, where you have both a first-past-the-post voting system and the two dominant parties split on the major issue of the day. The result is Labour and the Conservatives winning a combined 23% of the vote, down from 82% in the 2017 general election (Amazing visuals here)

It's hard but not impossible to break a duopoly in British politics. The Labour Party, after all, was born in the early 20th century because Liberal-Tory conflict was no longer the most salient dividing line in British politics. Of course, it may be that Labour eventually (somehow) becomes the Remain party and the Conservatives Leave - or business-as-usual may find ways to reassert itself. But the Labour-Conservative duopoly has never looked so precarious and it's 100 year reign may be coming to a fractious end.

The second order effects of US-China trade war

I've held back from writing too frequently on the ever evolving US-Huawei tension (see previous coverage), as it's such a fascinating and fast-moving story that it would be easy to end up writing about nothing else. The last fortnight is no different - with Trump's ban, an important interview with Huawei's founder, and interesting knock-on effects for ARM and what we mean when we talk about IP in tech.

The most interesting angle I've seen, though, looks at what the broader China-US trade war means for American domestic political economy. One hypothesis is that the falling cost of consumer tech products (and the associated app economy) has been the key countervailing force to stagnating median incomes. Many already argue that its median income stagnation that is responsible for populist resurgence on both sides of the Atlantic - so what if that deflationary trend started to reverse?

As more than one commentator has pointed out, the American middle class is not ready for a world where trade war with China leads to more expensive consumer goods. There may be a grand strategy here, but elites responsible for crafting foreign policy tend to see the world very differently from ordinary people, as this great essay - Tragedy of the Geopolitical Nerd - argues (see also this excellent piece on the impossibility of ignoring popular opinion over the long run). This is not going to end well - even if we manage to avoid actual war, which is hopefully still a low bar.

Writing, entrepreneurship and new institutions

I came across this wonderful reflection from 1995 by legendary writer Robert Caro this week. Caro is possibly the greatest living student of power. His biographies of Robert Moses and Lyndon Johnson are spectacular and lengthy in equal measure. The piece looks at a low point early in his writing career and how he was "saved" by the Frederick Lewis Allen Memorial Room (FLAMR), a private room dedicated to writers in the New York Public Library.

Reading it, I was struck by the parallels between writing and entrepreneurship - and between what FLAMR did for Caro and what we've built Entrepreneur First to do for founders. Above all, Caro acknowledges something rarely said in public: that having to articulate how entrepreneurial activity is going - whether it's writing or founding - can be excruciatingly embarrassing. Caro praises FLAMR above all for being a protective bubble in which he could admit that writing his book was far harder and taking far longer than he'd hoped and still have the respect of his peers.

We need more institutions like this. I've written before that entrepreneurship is still a "pre-mainstream" activity. The ladders and institutions that make traditional careers (more) straightforward to enter are still in the process of being formed. I suspect the same is true for many similar vocations (like writing): it's not easy to access the resources, the community and the validation that most people need to succeed. What would FLAMR look like at scale? I expect we'll find out in the coming decade.

Quick Links

  1. The death of coal. The remarkable trajectory of the UK's energy sources.
  2. All at sea. Fascinating thread on what long solo ocean voyages are like.
  3. No one goes there any more, it's too crowded. Great chart on the trade off between quality of life and cost of living in global cities.
  4. Silence is not golden. Surprising chart (and trendline) of word-per-minute in each Game of Thrones episode.
  5. No world for old men. We've reached a tipping point in global demographics.

Your feedback

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Until next week,