Thoughts in Between

by Matt Clifford

Matt's Thoughts In Between - Issue #78

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WeWork - disrupter or dumpster?

WeWork, the co-working and office space provider filed to go public last week. It’s been a widely anticipated moment, partly because WeWork is a company many people love to hate - and one that for many sums up all the excesses of the decade.

Its IPO prospectus gave its critics a field day (see, e.g., here). WeWork is losing billions of dollars, has questionable corporate governance (Adam Neumann, its founder and CEO, has a voting majority and has borrowed hundreds of millions against his stock, some of which he used to... buy buildings that he leased back to WeWork!) and uses a lot of non-standard metrics (Sadly they’ve abandoned the infamous Community-adjusted EBITDA). I was intrigued, too, by Neumann’s commitment that he'll halve his voting power if he fails to give $1bn to charity over the next 10 years.

There are interesting bull cases for WeWork though. Alex Danco has a great piece on WeWork as a triumph of financial engineering that might just pull off genuine disruption of the commercial real estate market (He notes that this requires/allows you to completely ignore all their claims to be a tech company). Patrick McKenzie notes that WeWork could be the dominant brand of the remote work revolution. And Steve Cheney says it really is a tech company (as does Masa Son - see here at 21:30). I have no idea who is right, but it will be fascinating to watch. 

The rise of techno-populism

I wrote a couple of weeks ago about the fascinating character of Dominic Cummings, the architect of Brexit and now (arguably) the second most powerful person in the UK. Since then there have been interesting attempts in the media to understand him and his ideas. My friend Rowland wrote a very good column on this this week, in which he describes Cummings as a “techno-populist” - a new breed of political actor with the goals of a populist and the methods of a technocrat.

Rowland draws on this excellent essay from Italian political scientist Lorenzo Castellani. It’s long and in French (the Google translation is pretty good), but it’s a superb picture of the dilemmas facing modern states. Castellani argues that traditional politicians find themselves squeezed between ever more powerful unelected bodies (from central banks and supreme courts to transnational powers like the EU or Investor-State Dispute Resolution tribunals) and ever more radicalised popular “outsider” politicians.

For Castellani, techno-populism isn’t about any one person; it’s a description of how Western political economy is evolving. It’s also a vicious cycle: technocracy's unresponsiveness drives populists to electoral success - but also sets them up to fail, as the gap between what they promise and what they can deliver grows. It’s not obvious what the equilibrium is. Cummings’ answer seems to be some sort of “technocracy in one country” - one that can be more responsive than the EU, but doesn’t abandon the technocratic method itself. We’re about to find out a lot more about whether that works.

Cricket, contact and social trust

How can we increase trust and reduce prejudice between different demographic groups? One simple hypothesis that dates back to the 1950s is to increase contact between groups. It’s long been assumed that certain conditions are needed for this to work (e.g. the parties need to have common goals and mustn’t be in competition with each other) but it’s been hard to test. Matt Lowe has just published a paper that does exactly that and it’s one of the most remarkable and ambitious social experiments I’ve ever seen.

Lowe ran a huge cricket league in India with 1,300 (!) participants who he randomly assigned to teams (or to a control group). He then randomly assigned those teams to play against each other. Crucially, the participants were from diverse castes, so he had set up a situation where he could test the contact hypothesis for caste within a team (i.e. where there’s a common goal) and between opponents (i.e. where there’s not). Lowe lays out his methodology very accessibly in this thread.

The results are striking: people who played with members of another caste not only made friends with those people, but upgraded their view of the other caste in general. Of course, it’s not clear how applicable these results are outside cricket, but it’s worth reflecting on. Intergroup conflict is a stark fissure in contemporary politics, even or especially when there’s little contact between groups. We can’t - alas - randomly assign the entire electorate to cricket teams, but there may be more we can do to acquaint people from across divides with one another. 

Quick Links

  1. You’re not as busy as you think you are. Interesting results in time use.
  2. Too much in the Sun. Compelling study on newspaper choice and its influence on political views (see also this for a US example)
  3. Computer says Null. Crazy story about licence plates and databases (more fun than it sounds!)
  4. Coming soon to a democracy near you. Huawei allegedly helped some African politicians spy on their political opponents.
  5. Earning their Stripes. Impressive carbon sequestration policy from the internet payments company.

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Until next week,