Loud Alarms At NewCo’s Shift Forum


The NewCo Daily: Today’s Top Stories

Janet Napolitano with John Battelle during NewCo Shift Forum

We’re deep in the middle of NewCo’s Shift Forum in San Francisco. The theme is “capitalism at a crossroads.” That intersection looks pretty dangerous right now. Virtually every speaker here seems to share the view that this is a moment of great risk: Profound new technologies are scaling up quickly, while political and social change roils. Old certainties are vanishing before our eyes, while new ones contend for adoption by a deeply divided public.

In each of the past 50 years, you could say all of that, too. But this time around, we’re feeling it, in our hearts and our guts. Many of the easy problems that technology can solve have been dealt with. The remaining challenges — in areas like government, education, healthcare, and international trade — involve gnarly knots that tech alone can’t untie. We’re going to need every skill and every field to pitch in.

At the same time, a technology industry that has always assumed it was holding up one end of a public-private partnership now finds that its employees and its customers — and, maybe, its conscience — are all pushing it to take the lead in a fight against (some of) a new president’s policies. President Trump and tech companies both see themselves as agents of change. But there’s a profound gulf between the kinds of worlds each wants that change to shape. Immigration may be just the start.

In the first day at the Shift Forum, we’ve heard from entrepreneurs and businesspeople, policymakers and public servants, doctors and lawyers and artists. Everyone has a mission. But how do you fulfill your mission when the ground keeps shifting beneath you?

Silicon Valley events are usually driven by a sunny sense of opportunity. Alarm doesn’t come easy to this crowd; we crave upbeat signals. At the Shift Forum, one shaft of hope emerged in a brief talk by Niskanen Center president Jerry Taylor. Taylor, a longtime executive with the Cato Institute, left that libertarian think tank when he gradually came to lose faith in its hostility to climate science. Asking his ideologically dug-in colleagues to reconsider their positions, he found, was like “wearing a Mao shirt.”

Taylor realized he would rather change his job than keep ignoring the facts in front of him. That’s a human instinct which might help us navigate the crises ahead.

Economy’s Growth Numbers Leave So Much Out

Much depends on the Gross Domestic Product. Our political system is obsessed with this hoary statistic. It’s been putt-putting along at about 2 percent since the last recovery — not bad, but not as good as everyone wants. But increasingly, economists think this statistic is fundamentally broken (Patricia Cohen in The New York Times). Harvard’s Martin Feldstein: “I think the official data on real growth substantially underestimates the rate of growth.”

As the name indicates, GDP, Cohen reminds us, measures production — not quality, not wealth, not profit, not feelings. Production is quantified by price. But price, Cohen argues, “is an increasingly ill-suited proxy for value.” The problem is that a growing chunk of our lives are touched or shaped by digital services that in many cases have no price tag. How do you account for those in a statistic meant to gauge the health of the economy? So far, we can’t, and we don’t.

But GDP has always missed some “important quality improvements” (former White House adviser Jason Furman’s phrase, from the Times piece). The real question is whether it’s missing more today than in the past. There’s no way to be sure. But the less the experts agree on the reliability of a statistic, the more likely it is to turn into a partisan football.

Could Political Fence-Sitting Hurt A Business?

“Staying politically neutral is more dangerous for companies than you think.” Now, there’s a timely headline. You’ve already heard a lot about the companies, mostly in tech, that took a stand against the Trump administration’s immigration restrictions. Plenty of other companies have chosen a wait-and-see stance instead. Why take a position that will almost certainly alienate one half of the public or the other if you don’t have to?

The problem, writes Drexel University’s Daniel Korschun (The Conversation), is that more and more companies today — in the NewCo world, most companies — have made vocal public commitments to a set of values. When customers feel that a company has done something inconsistent with those values, they will punish it. It’s the perceived hypocrisy that riles the public.

“Consumers are willing to hold executives’ feet to the fire if they believe the executives are betraying corporate values,” Korschun writes. In other words, if you build a brand by embracing some species of idealism, better be sure to live by those ideals.


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