Of course you can’t say that and keep your job. Sure, Donald Trump’s recorded comments boasting about sexual predation in crude, callous language are politically toxic. They’re also kryptonite to employment. It’s “hard to believe he could get past the human resources department of a Fortune 500 company,” writes Andrew Ross Sorkin (The New York Times). This issue is no footnote — it’s at the heart of the bitter rancor that marks this election season. Trump’s appeal to his supporters is in part a backlash against socially and legally enforced limits on bad behavior, inadequately and inaccurately lumped together under the label of “political correctness.” It seems that a lot of people still dream of being Lord of Trump Castle and hitting on the powerless wenches. (Sad!) Many Trump fans yearn to turn back the clock to an era when mad men could stalk and abuse their female colleagues, while making tons more money than them, without ever facing consequences. But clocks move in only one direction — away from the indefensible practices of our elders. Trumpism will be swallowed by a tide of younger workers for whom sexual harassment and assault are as plainly over-the-line as other crimes. It’s already happening. This election’s noisy eruptions are the desperate final spasms of a dying belief system.
Science tastes better with Coke. According to a new study in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, 96 national health organizations — names like the American Diabetes Association and the National Institutes of Health — took funding from Coke and Pepsi between 2011 and 2015 (Time). The soda makers, increasingly under attack for promoting obesity, are struggling to avoid the fate of the tobacco industry by plowing a chunk of their profits toward good relations with the medical establishment. They’re also lobbying hard to resist regulations and taxes on their product. This isn’t a simple story of quid-pro-quo corruption; the health organizations maintain they’re independent and unswayed by the source of their funds. Perhaps they’re turning bad money to a good cause. But when issues are as hotly contested as this one, researchers can’t just assert their integrity; their credibility demands a clean audit trail.
Hey you kids, get on my lawn. On Monday 10,000 people attended a party in the White House’s yard celebrating tech, art, and changing the world. It was President Obama’s personal edition of a South by Southwest-style festival; called South by South Lawn, it featured virtual reality demos, social-media stars and conversations about climate change (The Daily Dot). Long lines waited to try out The Guardian’s 6×9, a VR creation that simulates the experience of solitary confinement. Slack founder Stewart Butterfield spoke about how to promote a more diverse startup universe and avoid creating a self-perpetuating system of exclusion. Obama himself chatted with Leonardo diCaprio and climate scientist Katharine Hayhoe about accelerating efforts to cut carbon emissions. For a few hours, at least, you could forget that the 2016 presidential election is already a political and cultural train wreck and imagine a more hopeful future.
A man for all startups? Sam Altman took over as head of Y Combinator, the celebrated Silicon Valley startup accelerator, two years ago, and has presided over a period of rapid growth and escalating ambition. A lengthy profile of “startup Yoda” Altman (by Tad Friend, in The New Yorker) makes it clear that he’s sharp and talented. But when it comes to assessing Altman’s aims and ideals, the story offers a cornucopia of ambiguities. On the one hand, Altman wants to “move the world forward”; on the other, the organization he presides over is like a tech-industry version of a college old-boy’s network, filled with socially homogenous 20-something entrepreneurs. On the one hand, he’s pals with Trump supporter Peter Thiel; on the other, he’s brainstorming ways to muster tech-community power to defeat the GOP candidate. He is both a believer in singularity-style AI breakthroughs and a “prepper” who has made elaborate survivalist plans in case of global catastrophe. “Altman’s great strengths are clarity of thought and an intuitive grasp of complex systems,” writes Friend. “His great weakness is his utter lack of interest in ineffective people, which unfortunately includes most of us.” Can you make social progress happen even if you “see people as chess pieces”? Keep an eye on Altman to find out.
The recent financial crisis exposed some serious flaws in our economic thinking. It has highlighted the need to look at economic policy with more critical, fresh approaches. It has also revealed the limitations of existing tools for structural analysis in factoring in key linkages, feedbacks and trade-offs — for example between growth, inequality and the environment.
Antitrust: It’s tanned and ready. A century ago, the progressive movement, reacting against the monopolies of the oil barons, established antitrust law as the government’s chief tool for restoring competition. But from the Reagan era on, we’ve defanged antitrust enforcement, and that allowed a new generation of monopolists to take hold (The Atlantic). The rate of new-business formation has dropped in each decade since. Despite our cultural infatuation with startups, markets are actually concentrating, and competition is evaporating. That’s why leaders like Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) advocate that the government brush off its antitrust arsenal. But today’s tech giants, like Apple and Alphabet/Google, are admired and beloved by consumers. Any newly invigorated antitrust enforcement that goes after them is likely to run into political resistance and face philosophical objections, too. Hasn’t the era of Big Tech also brought new efficiencies and lower prices? As one observer puts it in The Atlantic: “Where do we draw the line between ‘good’ bigness and ‘bad’ bigness?” Tough to say — but it’s useful to try.
It’s all Spotify’s fault. The global economy has behaved in confounding ways since the economic crisis of 2007–8: We have historically low interest rates and we’re awash in cash, but inflation remains vanishingly low, which is exactly the opposite of what conventional economics says should happen. Maybe our whole picture is askew because we’re failing to account for the production of “virtual goods,” like Spotify subscriptions (Business Insider). “What if deflation is not a sign of recession but rather a product of the relentless efficiency of tech services like Uber, Airbnb and Spotify?” In other words: Are we stuck in “a no-growth world” — or do we simply have a “measurement issue”? Sweden, Spotify’s native land, embodies this dilemma: With high growth and no inflation, it’s either an economic utopia or a bubble waiting to bust. A lot hangs on the answer, and no one really knows.
I thought long and hard about how best to respond to the thousands of emails I’ve received since publishing Throwing Rocks at the Google Bus. People, companies, mayors, cooperatives, towns and big corporations, all looking for ways to distribute prosperity more widely, start local currencies, build platform cooperatives, convert to employee ownership, offer dividends instead of capital gains, or crowdfund a bookstore. I’ve answered more than half — or about 20,000 of them — individually. But I realized that it’s really not me who has the answers; it’s you.
The US government is famously slow and bureaucratic, but when it comes to digital transformation, the Feds have outdone themselves. Case in point is healthcare.gov — the original government solution for identity management cost $200 million to build and would have cost $70 million to run each year. Of course, it failed spectacularly — until a small group of Valley engineers recruited by the President re-built the site for just $4mm.
But while it’s easy to poke fun at our government, it’s also the single most impactful organization in our economy — with millions of employees and services that directly and sometimes dramatically impact hundreds of millions of Americans.
New President Brad Smith on a Renewed Mission, a Major Culture Shift, and the Role of a Corporation in Society
This week’s column introduces the Shift Dialogs, NewCo’s new video series featuring in-depth conversations with the leaders driving significant change across business, culture, and society. Our first episode features Brad Smith, President and Chief Legal Officer of Microsoft. We’ve also released the second episode, featuring Max Ventilla, founder and CEO of AltSchool.
Back in 1993, when an early thirty-something lawyer named Brad Smith joined Microsoft, his new employer was a fearsome amalgam of every badass tech company on the planet today. It had the ubiquitous reach of Google, the scary omnipotence of Facebook, the arrogant presumption of Apple, and the heartless calculation of Amazon. Its ruthless business practices were the subject of intense debate — was Microsoft too powerful? What could be done about it?
There was plenty for the new Associate General Counsel to do. His company was a magnet for legal trouble, locking horns with regulators and competitors around the globe. As the dot-com boom swelled in the late 1990s, Microsoft dominated the Internet with its Explorer web browser, and Wall Street crowned it the undisputed king of tech — in 1997, Microsoft’s market capitalization stood at more than seventy times that of its struggling rival Apple Computer.