INFLECTION POINT

I’ve just left this comment on Fred Wilson’s blog, duplicated below:

The US is at an inflection point. (We) Americans have a choice between innovation, prosperity, democracy and rent-seeking, extortion, oligarchy. The system is sclerotic, with neither party responding to the preferences of voters, and one of the parties is on the verge imploding (see Gilens and Page: Testing Theories of American Politics: Elites, Interest Groups, and Average Citizens and Larry Lessig: Republic Lost).

This is reflected in diminishing affiliations and in the populism of both Trump and Sanders. Having spent two years in Argentina and studied that country’s history, I often wonder whether we aren’t in for (or already in) a long period of swings, between redistribution and diminishing civil rights, not to mention lots of nastiness. True, our institutions are stronger, and thankfully our military respects civilian command. But in the long run? Here’s some food for thought, from NYU professor and former Secretary of Foreign Affairs of Mexico, Jorge CastaƱeda.

As for Fred’s group, I’d like to think it’s benign, and I won’t deny it most likely represents my interests. Moreover, to the extent that VC’s profit from disruption, they are on the side of the plebs; and I believe FW works hard to keep the common touch, both out of humility and self-interest (because that is how you don’t miss the AirB&B’s).

But said group is one of many such groups. And the net effect on the system, I think, is less than benign. Mancur Olson wrote about this — “Stable societies with unchanged boundaries tend to accumulate more collusions and organizations over time. … As the benefits secured by groups accumulate, the economy rigidifies.” — as did the British journalist Edward Luce, who quotes him here.

*Note that I am no libertarian. I live in NYC. Our subway system alone, with its absurd duplication and gaps (eg, LaGuardia), is living testament to the fact that for some things, central planning and coordination are better. For that matter, Hamilton himself was perfectly happy to send spies to the UK to capture trade secrets, to say nothing of his industrial policy.

GENTRIFICATION

[I left this comment on Hacker News yesterday in response to an article on gentrification in Atlanta. It seemed to resonate with a few people, so I’m reposting here.]

I’ve been both gentrifier and gentrified.

As a white man from a relatively privileged background, I lived in Harlem long before it was deemed “safe”. I remember apartment hunting north of Central Park around 2003 and getting a lot of dirty looks from the black Americans who had been there for generations. Who could blame them? To them I was another invader from Columbia U. And while I was there as a “pioneer” and not a “settler”, as one paying about as much as they did, and while I resented the charm-bracelet girls as much as they did, I was changing the tone of the place, like it or not.

New York is now in the midst of a battle over absentee landlords. You might call it ground zero in the battle over the future of the US. You walk through Central Park and the Plaza Hotel, now mostly condos, sits dark. No one home. And behind there’s a string of supertowers twice as high as the average skyscraper. The New York Times last year had an expose about the buyers: many foreign, many dirty, most masking their identities with shell companies. Since the owners often do not reside in New York, their contribution to the city’s coffers is mixed. More importantly, it seems pretty clear that a majority of New Yorkers resent the shadows being cast over their parks. We may have “air rights”, but unlike San Francisco, we have no law guaranteeing sun rights. No wonder many of us are deficient in D.

Meanwhile, the mayor, Bill de Blasio, is happy to let the builders have their way, so long as they support his “affordable housing” agenda, ie, contribute. Until recently he refused to acknowledge what has been plain: that the homeless population has ballooned — to 60,000, almost half of them children. Many of these people got priced out.

We can debate the fairness of all this as well as the wisdom of price controls, etc. What we should acknowledge, though, is the fact that policies have consequences, that sometimes change outpaces people’s ability to adapt, and that we as a city / society will pay the costs, directly or indirectly. For a very moving but also nonjudgmental look at these dynamics, check out the documentary Homme Less.

 

METRICS

I swam most of Thirteenth Lake in the Adirondacks on Sunday. It took me about an hour and a half.1

The water was cold. Mountains and forest encircled me. My goggles fogged and the far end seemed closer than it was. More than three-quarters in, reluctantly, I turned back: friends were waiting. On the way back, alternating between breast and back, I felt disoriented and dizzy. But I needed to return. Drowning would have inconvenienced too many. I swam on.

Yesterday I found this lake is some two miles in length. So my swim came to over three miles. It’s the farthest and longest I’ve swum without stopping. I am not surprised. I’ve always felt I could swim distances, and this distance still seems modest. But I doubt whether I could repeat this in a pool. Too tedious. Too tempting to stop. An hour and so many laps would likely suffice. And truthfully, had I know the lake’s distance, I might have been satisfied with less.

Which raises the question:

Just how do the metrics we choose or the goals we set (laps vs lengths) affect our output?

Are we inflating ourselves into mediocrity?