Tag Archives: Business

‘American Factory’: It’s Not the Culture, It’s the Current

By Sunny Wang – Telling the story of a factory in Dayton, Ohio, that a Chinese manufacturer has invested in, the documentary “American Factory” has been gaining tons of attention in China. It’s currently #3 on the trending chart of documentaries on Tencent Video — a Chinese video streaming website with over 900 million monthly active users — as the only foreign documentary in top 10 of the chart.

The film offers clear views from both the Chinese and the Americans in the story, bringing out the unsettling conflict to the viewers – it’s not just about the differences between two cultures; it’s more about the conflict that comes with primitive accumulation of capital, the one that comes along with the changes taking place in the manufacturing industry.

I think this is a great metaphor describing how the Chinese workers are positioning themselves. The society is always moving forward; anyone standing still — not improving or educating themselves, or working extra hard constantly — can easily be left behind. Our current situation is even crueler than before, because we’re in the age of A.I. and automation, which would only accelerate the changes, or the “current” in this metaphor. The Chinese factory workers found their place in this “current” by being cost-efficient laborers in the manufacturing process — they chose to work harder to ensure high efficiency. But the conflict sets in on the other side of the ocean where automation outperforms labor at a lower cost.

As seen in the film, the working environment was dangerous, pay was low, and working shifts were long at FGA, yet the workers in the Dayton plant chose to stay and complain instead of leaving for better jobs that are safe, easy, and with better pay. Could it be because they didn’t have a choice? more>

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Violence, fabricated news, and responsible media

By Egemen Bağış – In history no medium of any kind has evolved as the way media has. From radio broadcasting to large box-sets, to today’s social media networks and online viewing capabilities.

In 1946, Darryl F. Zanuck, a powerful Hollywood producer at 20th Century Fox, said that television wouldn’t last because “people will soon get tired of staring at a plywood box every night.” Today we can only smile with amazement at the sheer inaccuracy of this prediction.

Another prediction by British journalist, publisher, and politician C.P. Scott was slightly truer when he proclaimed, “Television? The word is half Latin and half Greek. No good can come of it.” While it is not true that no good comes of media, it wouldn’t be a far-fetched call to assert that modern day mass media exposes society to violence, degradation, and vulgarity.

The effect of media is profound and far-reaching. It influences our values, our daily routines and even our thinking with our deep-seeded ideologies and beliefs. Also today media is much more accessible. Media is in our homes and our mobile phones.

It is through TV and internet that our communities are introduced with extreme visions of violence. Social media brings forth a steady stream of live atrocities at the touch of a finger. Video games teach our young how to handle weapons they would otherwise never even heard of. We must, therefore, take extra precautions to ensure that our families and communities do not get contaminated from this toxic fallout. more>

The economics of bubbles

By Brent Goldfarb and David Kirsch – The space between fiction and reality is where economic bubbles take shape. Froth fills that space.

As the Dutch Tulipmania of the 17th century and the South Sea Bubble of the 18th century attest, speculative bubbles have been with us since the early days of corporations and market capitalism. Instant mass communication, in the form of the radio, was an amazing invention of the 1920s. Almost 700 new radio stations – the United States’ entire current AM broadcast infrastructure – were established in 1922. But nobody had identified a successful business model for radio broadcast.

Often the opportunity for a bubble arrives on the back of a new technology. And some technologies make for fantastic stories – indeed, sci-fi is a whole fictional genre based on this premise. Bubbles form whenever a new story is not only told, but can also be sold. However, not every new story leads to a bubble. Sometimes stories can be told, but not sold.

These cases highlight two important necessary conditions for the formation of a bubble: first, bubbles need narratives. Every startup begins as a story about an imagined future. Every venture, every investment, is a statement about the future, an attempt to create a future that conforms to the imagined vision of the promoter. Teams are formed, resources acquired, alliances entered, products and services developed, all in furtherance of that story and that future.

Every startup story will have some common elements – a protagonist (sometimes, but not necessarily a technology), a plotline in which the protagonist struggles against a challenge from dark forces (incumbents, or the current way of doing things), and a happy ending where the sun shines and human progress is advanced. Ever incomplete, these stories provide the mental scaffolding for individuals and institutions to invest in new ventures. Good stories sell, and the more uncertain the outcome, the more leeway for entrepreneurs to fabulate.

Bubbles inflate as the distance between fiction and reality increases. Contexts – such as investor liquidity, regulatory frameworks and cultural and macro-economic factors – establish boundaries on how far our stories can depart from reality. But entrepreneurs are also creatures of context, and some are better than others at ‘entrepreneuring’, stretching the limits of plausibility and maximizing time for their imagined realities to catch up to their promises.

Sometimes, we don’t observe a bubble not because the stories aren’t sticky or because the technology isn’t narratible, but because the narrative comes to fruition and the technology or entrepreneur delivers. more>

Updates from Chicago Booth

A.I. is only human
By Jeff Cockrell – If you applied for a mortgage, would you be comfortable with a computer using a collection of data about you to assess how likely you are to default on the loan?

If you applied for a job, would you be comfortable with the company’s human-resources department running your information through software that will determine how likely it is that you will, say, steal from the company, or leave the job within two years?

If you were arrested for a crime, would you be comfortable with the court plugging your personal data into an algorithm-based tool, which will then advise your judge on whether you should await trial in jail or at home? If you were convicted, would you be comfortable with the same tool weighing in on your sentencing?

Much of the hand-wringing about advances in artificial intelligence has been concerned with AI’s effects on the labor market. “AI will gradually invade almost all employment sectors, requiring a shift away from human labor that computers are able to take over,” reads a report of the 2015 study panel of Stanford’s One Hundred Year Study on Artificial Intelligence. But whether AI ultimately creates massive unemployment or inspires new, as-yet-unknown professional fields, its perils and promises extend beyond the job market. By replacing human decision-making with automated processes, we can make businesses and public institutions more effective and efficient—or further entrench systemic biases, institutionalize discrimination, and exacerbate inequalities.

It’s an axiom of computing that results are dependent on inputs: garbage in, garbage out.

What if companies’ machine-learning projects come up with analyses that, while logical and algorithmically based, are premised on faulty assumptions or mismeasured data?

What if these analyses lead to bad or ethically questionable decisions—either among business leaders or among policy makers and public authorities? more>

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The Surveillance Threat Is Not What Orwell Imagined

By Shoshana Zuboff – George Orwell repeatedly delayed crucial medical care to complete 1984, the book still synonymous with our worst fears of a totalitarian future — published 70 years ago this month.

Since 1984’s publication, we have assumed with Orwell that the dangers of mass surveillance and social control could only originate in the state. We were wrong. This error has left us unprotected from an equally pernicious but profoundly different threat to freedom and democracy.

For 19 years, private companies practicing an unprecedented economic logic that I call surveillance capitalism have hijacked the Internet and its digital technologies. Invented at Google beginning in 2000, this new economics covertly claims private human experience as free raw material for translation into behavioral data. Some data are used to improve services, but the rest are turned into computational products that predict your behavior.

These predictions are traded in a new futures market, where surveillance capitalists sell certainty to businesses determined to know what we will do next. This logic was first applied to finding which ads online will attract our interest, but similar practices now reside in nearly every sector — insurance, retail, health, education, finance and more — where personal experience is secretly captured and computed for behavioral predictions. By now it is no exaggeration to say that the Internet is owned and operated by private surveillance capital.

In the competition for certainty, surveillance capitalists learned that the most predictive data come not just from monitoring but also from modifying and directing behavior. more>

We need to rethink our economic assumptions

By Isabel V. Sawhill – To defeat Trump in the upcoming election, Democrats are advancing a set of proposals engineered to excite their base: a single payer health system, college for all, a guaranteed jobs program.

All are worthy of debate but perhaps the problems go deeper. Perhaps they go to the core of our beliefs about how the world works, what makes the economy tick, and how this relates to human welfare.

The dominant paradigm right now is what is sometimes called Neoliberalism which I define as a belief in the efficiency of markets. Those on the left believe that a market economy needs more than a little help from government. There are social costs and benefits that markets ignore; economic downturns are not self-correcting; and a lack of competition or transparency can harm consumers.

By addressing these and other shortcomings, government can free the market to do what it does best. Still, the central belief is that markets are the most efficient way to organize a society and by extension optimize individual freedom.

Critics of this paradigm note that it is fundamentally flawed. Human beings are not just consumers, they don’t always behave rationally, and they don’t always maximize their own well-being. They need a sense of community, they care about the welfare of others, and their sense of what matters goes well beyond a larger GDP. They respond not just to economic incentives but to the desire for respect from their peers, to social norms, and to moral or religious principles.

There is an efficient allocation of resources to go with every possible allocation of dollar votes and the distribution of dollar votes should be a communal decision arrived at by democratic means.

At the core of the neoliberal theory – arguably its most influential precept — is the idea that people are paid what they are worth.

If incomes are unequal it’s because skills and talents are unequal. The rich deserve their riches because, for the most part, they earned them. The poor lack income because they have too little education or the other skills needed to get ahead.

There is a lot that’s ignored in the wages equal marginal productivity equation: the asymmetry of bargaining power, the difficulty of discerning who contributes what, the stickiness of established wage norms and employment relationships, and the lack of competition. more>

Why the US bears the most responsibility for climate change, in one chart

By Umair Irfan – Humans are pumping more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere at an accelerating rate. But climate change is a cumulative problem, a function of the total amount of greenhouse gases that have accumulated in the sky. Some of the heat-trapping gases in the air right now date back to the Industrial Revolution. And since that time, some countries have pumped out vastly more carbon dioxide than others.

The wonderful folks at Carbon Brief have put together a great visual of how different countries have contributed to climate change since 1750. The animation shows the cumulative carbon dioxide emissions of the top emitters and how they’ve changed over time.

What’s abundantly clear is that the United States of America is the all-time biggest, baddest greenhouse gas emitter on the planet.

That’s true, despite recent gains in energy efficiency and cuts in emissions. These relatively small steps now cannot offset more than a century of reckless emissions that have built up in the atmosphere. Much more drastic steps are now needed to slow climate change. And as the top cumulative emitter, the US bears a greater imperative for curbing its carbon dioxide output and a greater moral responsibility for the impacts of global warming.

Yet the United States is now the only country aiming to withdraw from the Paris climate agreement. more>

China’s Belt and Road: The new geopolitics of global infrastructure development

By Amar Bhattacharya, David Dollar, Rush Doshi, Ryan Hass, Bruce Jones, Homi Kharas, Jennifer Mason, Mireya Solís, and Jonathan Stromseth – The growing strategic rivalry between the United States and China is driven by shifting power dynamics and competing visions of the future of the international order. China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) is a leading indicator of the scale of China’s global ambitions.

Originally conceptualized as a “going out” strategy to develop productive outlets for domestic overcapacity and to diversify China’s foreign asset holdings, Beijing later branded the effort as its “Belt and Road Initiative.” While the initiative began with a predominantly economic focus, it has taken on a greater security profile over time.

China’s initiative has attracted interest from over 150 countries and international organizations in Asia, Europe, the Middle East, and Africa. This is due, in part, to the fact that the initiative is meeting a need and filling a void left by international financial institutions (IFI) as they shifted away from hard infrastructure development. But there is a real possibility that the BRI will follow in the footsteps of the IFIs, encounter the same problems, and falter.

BRI shouldn’t be seen as a traditional aid program because the Chinese themselves do not see it that way and it certainly does not operate that way. It is a money-making investment and an opportunity for China to increase its connectivity.

The initiative has a blend of economic, political, and strategic agendas that play out differently in different countries, which is illustrated by China’s approach to resolving debt, accepting payment in cash, commodities, or the lease of assets. The strategic objectives are particularly apparent when it comes to countries where the investment aligns with China’s strategy of developing its access to ports that abut key waterways. more>

Dignity for drivers: the DGB campaign for ‘fair mobility’

When is a posted worker in Europe not a posted worker? When he’s a truck driver, it seems.
By Martin Stuber and Michael Wahl – ‘A monthly pay of €1,000, no holidays, living separately from their families for two years—the bare figures alone are outrageous,’ the German magazine Stern reported on truck drivers from the Philippines who discovered the ‘wild west’ of Europe’s roads as posted workers for Polish companies. They had to share their driver cabin with a colleague and work, sleep and cook there.

Action on the European level is urgently needed to tackle such cross-border ‘day labor’.

Europe, however, seems to shy away from this solution. European decision makers have failed once again to create new rules on road haulage, in advance of the looming elections to the European Parliament in May. Where some saw too much liberalization, others demanded even more deregulation—and in the end there was no European consensus, neither on posting rules nor on driving and rest times.

Drivers who deliver services on behalf of western-European companies under an eastern-European working contract commonly only benefit from eastern-European minimum wages—around €500 a month. more>

‘Hate Is Way More Interesting Than That’: Why Algorithms Can’t Stop Toxic Speech Online

Researchers have recently discovered that anyone can trick hate speech detectors with simple changes to their language—and typos are just one way that neo-Nazis are foiling the algorithms.
By Morgan Meaker – Erin Schrode didn’t know much about the extreme right before she ran for Congress. “I’m not going to tell you I thought anti-Semitism was dead, but I had never personally been the subject of it,” she says.

That changed when The Daily Stormer, a prominent neo-Nazi website, posted an article about her 2016 campaign.

For years, social media companies have struggled to contain the sort of hate speech Schrode describes. When Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg spoke before the Senate in April of 2018, he acknowledged that human moderators were not enough to remove toxic content from Facebook; in addition, he said, they needed help from technology.

“Over time, we’re going to shift increasingly to a method where more of this content is flagged up front by [artificial intelligence] tools that we develop,” Zuckerberg said.

Zuckerberg estimated that A.I. could master the nuances of hate speech in five to 10 years. “But today, we’re just not there,” he told senators.

He’s right: Researchers have recently discovered anyone can trick hate speech detectors with simple changes to their language—removing spaces in sentences, changing “S” to “$,” or changing vowels to numbers. more>