Eye of the Tweet Storm: Social Media Strikes Back


The NewCo Daily: Today’s Top Stories

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Twitter was a potent weapon in Donald Trump’s campaign arsenal. But the power of social media constantly mutates, and right now it’s working against the Trump team’s efforts to control the flow of information from the ranks of the federal civil service out to the public.

Most incoming administrations go through rough patches as their political appointees take the reins of career-run agencies. But this transition is the first one to feature rogue Twitter accounts pushing back against the dictates of new bosses — or at least, as in the case of the National Parks social media managers who decided to Tweet-blast straightforward climate facts, do what they view as their public-information jobs. The Ringer has a good summary of January 2017’s “digital insurrection” (the Associated Press’s apt phrase).

Of course, these sporadic outbursts are almost certainly inconsequential in the long run, especially compared with more substantive power moves from the Trump side — like its insistence that all environmental research findings be reviewed by political appointees before publication (Mother Jones). They’re like a latter-day digital version of the fronde, the doomed fringe rebellions of 17th-century French nobility and vestigial legislatures against royal authority. They’re not going to stop Trump from having his way with the executive branch that he now controls.

But they do remind us that he faces an uphill battle to suppress information in a world where megaphones are widely distributed. As Christine Todd Whitman, George W. Bush’s EPA chief, put it to the AP, “Trump’s statements have poisoned the well to a degree. If the career staff doesn’t believe you, if they don’t trust you, then things can get very cumbersome.” If nothing else, the Twitter skirmishes have accomplished the unlikely feat of recasting reviled Federal bureaucrats as heroic Rebel Alliance fighters.

Someone Needs to Build the Job-Taking Robots

Yes, there are fewer factory jobs in the U.S. than there used to be. But guess what? We make nearly twice as much stuff as we did in 1987, with 2/3 the workers. What that means, writes Farhad Manjoo in The New York Times, is that no matter how successful we are at keeping factories in the U.S., that alone won’t create a bonanza of new jobs.

Automation, not overseas competition, is the deep force transforming manufacturing today. If we want to keep making things in the U.S., we might want to put less energy into bribing companies not to move overseas and more into nurturing and promoting the domestic robot industry.

The U.S. invented the industrial robot, but the business has taken root in China, backed by government planners and money. Unless the U.S. starts investing in robot-making, Manjoo says, we’re going to face a distressing new reality: “Today, we buy a lot of stuff made in China by Chinese people. Tomorrow, we’ll buy stuff made in America — by Chinese robots.”

Carbon Accounting Is About to Get Creative

We manage what we can measure, and if we are going to have a chance of managing the impact of climate change, we need to measure the damage it does. That’s what longstanding efforts to measure the social cost of carbon are all about: providing decision makers in business and government with a number — currently $36 per ton of carbon dioxide emissions — they can use in trying to balance our climate books.

That number is imperfect, of course — and a new report from the National Academy of Sciences suggests ways to improve its accuracy and transparency. Some climate scientists worry that we’re actually way underestimating carbon’s real costs. But there’s only one direction — down — that this number is likely to go under the Trump administration, considering its pro-fossil fuel, anti-climate science agenda, writes Andrew Revkin in ProPublica.

Eliminating social-cost-of-carbon calculations entirely might be more than the Trump administration can pull off, given how entrenched cost-benefit analysis is in our regulatory machinery (as it should be!). But look for the new president’s energy team to take a big bite out of the number — or even try to reduce it to zero.

Peter Thiel, New Zealand, and Monopolies

Peter Thiel, President Trump’s bridge-builder to the Silicon Valley elite, keeps popping up in the news — this week for two separate, equally incongruous stories.

First: Thiel may sit at the U.S. president’s elbow when he meets with tech CEOs, but it turns out he has become a citizen of New Zealand (The New York Times). The move is part of a doomsday-prep plan (like those we wrote about earlier this week) for which Thiel has purchased a $10 million Kiwi estate. You may recall that Thiel is a longtime libertarian, whose hostility to the old-school nation-state is epitomized by his enthusiasm for the sovereignty-evading concept of “seasteading.” Trump is an unabashed nationalist who took office promising “America first” in all things — except, apparently, when it comes to your apocalypse escape hatch.

Thiel’s second cameo this week comes with the news that he is the Trump administration’s point person for choosing the nation’s top antitrust officials (Buzzfeed). Longtime Thiel-watchers will roll their eyes at this, because antitrust is all about restraining monopolies, and Thiel has famously argued that monopolies are wonderful and “competition is for losers.” As an attention-getting contrarian argument, that’s brilliant. But it may not be the best philosophy if you actually hope to see competition thrive.

If you’re as eager to join this conversation as we are to convene it, please join us at the Shift Forum this February 6–8th in San Francisco. We’ve got a very limited number of seats left, and we expect it to sell out shortly. Because the event is held under Chatham House Rule, you’ll have be present to learn from these extraordinary leaders. Non profit and founder discounts are available. We hope to see you there!

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