This is a one-page archvie of all links posts, in which I link to an article and offer my brief commentary. The essay posts archive is here.



That’s seems to be Amazon’s assumption in leaked documents about Whole Foods. According to Business Insider:

Store-risk metrics include average store compensation, average total store sales, and a “diversity index” that represents the racial and ethnic diversity of every store. Stores at higher risk of unionizing have lower diversity and lower employee compensation, as well as higher total store sales and higher rates of workers’ compensation claims, according to the documents.

Could explain the spate of unionization in online media.

This kind of optimistic sangfroid is right up my alley:

Collapse isn’t necessarily as scary as it sounds, by the way. It’s merely a society’s rapid and involuntary simplification. Yes, some collapses have segued into “dark ages,” but they needn’t have. The alternative is to embrace simplification and call it innovation, if that helps.

​That’s Andreas Kluth making the case that we should se the pandemic as an opportunity to reset and simplify—from personal consumption to demosclorotic excess. The whole thing is worth reading.

The NYT reports that Treasury has put restrictions on the relief funds it sends to states prohibiting their use for non-pandemic expenditures. People are not happy about this:

“It is clear the revenue loss is going to be coronavirus related; it is just that the expenditures are not specifically for coronavirus,” said Senator Sherrod Brown of Ohio, one of 46 senators in the Democratic caucus who signed a letter made public Sunday urging the administration to revise the ban.

He’s got a point, and it’s going to be really driven home when states start to go bankrupt and seek federal bailouts. But for the pandemic, someone like Brown might argue, said states would not have gone bankrupt, at least not right now. But counterpoint:

“It’s not fair to the taxpayers of Florida,” Senator Rick Scott, Republican of Florida and a former governor of the state, told reporters in the Capitol on Monday. “We sit here, we live within our means, and then New York, Illinois, California and other states don’t. And we’re supposed to go bail them out? That’s not right.”

He’s got a point, too. The pandemic may be the immediate cause of bankruptcy, but the proximate cause is decades of mismanagement, especially of public pension systems. The pandemic should not be allowed to be a fig leaf covering up what would otherwise be an embarrassing bailout.

In my post arguing that the U.S. would not split up like the E.U. seems to be I said, “If (and when) California goes bankrupt, it knows the federal government will bail it out, so it’s not facing the same incentives as Italy or Spain.” Whatever Mitch McConnell’s posturing, the federal government will indeed bail out bankrupt states. I hope, though, that Congress has the fortitude to bailouts come with requirements for fiscal and pension reform. As usual, though, I’m not holding my breath.

Daniel Hannan in the Telegraph:

It is important to stress that Sweden is not being insouciant. Its people have been told to work from home if they can and to avoid unnecessary contact. Sports fixtures and meetings of more than 50 people are banned. Cafés can serve customers at tables, but not at the bar. Many Swedes, especially the elderly, are isolating themselves by choice. Personal spending, measured by bank card transactions, is down 30 per cent – though, by comparison, the fall in Norway is 66 per cent and in Finland 70 per cent.

So it’s not a laissez faire policy. And “according to the pollster Novus, 76 per cent support the public health agency.” There’s definitely a price to this strategy, though. As of today, Sweden has had 217 Covid deaths per million inhabitants, while its locked-down neighbors Norway and Finland have had about 35 per million. The U.S. has had 165 per million.

Scott Sumner points out that the better model of a country with no lock-down is Taiwan. Remarkably it has had a grand total of six deaths, or .25 per million inhabitants. The difference?

Taiwan was impacted by the SARS epidemic, and its government took this issue very seriously. There was lots of testing, quarantining of those infected, and tracing of contacts. The Taiwanese people were encouraged to wear masks, and take other precautions.

As far as I can tell, the Swedes did not take the crisis as seriously, seeming to content themselves with the inevitability of mass infections.

Campaign chiefs at Labour HQ hoodwinked their own leader because they disapproved of some of Corbyn’s left-wing messages.

They convinced him they were following his campaign plans by spending just £5,000 on adverts solely designed to be seen by Corbyn, his aides and their favourite journalists, while pouring far more money into adverts with a different message for ordinary voters.

This just tickles my pickle so much. But I also wonder how much the team does this to me.

Writing in The Atlantic Jack Goldsmith and Andrew Keane Woods make the case that America’s internet users are already as much subject to surveillance and control as China’s. It’s hard to see how they’re wrong. That’s why it’s important to fight for due process as long as we can and build another internet in the meantime.

Writing in Wired Cal Newport praises Twitter for its ability to surface relevant experts, but he warns:

Twitter was optimized for links and short musings. It’s not well suited for complex discussions or nuanced analyses. As a result, the feeds of these newly emerged pandemic experts are often a messy jumble of re-ups, unrolled threads, and screenshot excerpts of articles. We can do better.

We need to augment social platforms with a surge in capacity of the original Web 2.0 technology that these upstarts so effectively displaced: blogs.

​To me the long-neglected advantages of blogging are not just about better presentation of information, but about the level of discourse they once engendered and how it compares to Twitter today. Blogging has a higher cost than tweeting, so it filters for more serious (or at least more committed) posting, where quality trumps quantity. The incentives Twitter presents lead one all too easily down a path of snark, mob-pleasing, and ad hominem.

Arguments on the blogs of yore were slow volleys of thoughtful and well-sourced essays, rather than micro-sniping. I would love to see that kind of conversation come back. It’s in large part why I’m blogging again and I hope others will join me.

Writing in the Washington Post today:

When a predator, unbound by the rules followed by its competitors, is allowed to operate in a free market, that market is no longer truly free.

Here’s a perfect illustration of that sentence. It looks like Parliament may (justifiably) reject Boris Johnson’s plan to allow Huawei to roll out 5G in the UK. The Chinese response?

“We hope the U.K. side can uphold principles of freedom and openness, maintain policy independence and provide Chinese companies with an open, fair and nondiscriminatory business environment,” Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said at a briefing in Beijing on Friday. “This will help Chinese companies maintain confidence in the U.K. market.”

It’s a threat, almost sarcastically wrapped in the language of liberalism. I hope Parliament doesn’t stand for it. As for Romney, what he proposes is basically TPP, which we well may get in a Biden (or even a second Trump) administration.

And neither will Las Vegas Jonathan V. Last persuasively argues in The Bulwark:

(1) If every theater in America opened tomorrow, what percentage of normal attendance would you see? 70 percent? 50 percent? 30 percent? What would that translate into as a percentage of total revenue decline, once you factor in concession sales?

(2) The theatrical exhibition business is such a low-margin industry that even a 30 percent decline in revenues would be enough to push just about every operator in America into bankruptcy.

(3) Even if some theaters managed to stay afloat in the short term, what movies would they show? The Marvel movie Black Widow was originally scheduled to open in theaters today. That debut has been postponed indefinitely. Let’s say you are Disney and you made Black Widow expecting it to open to $130 million dollars, pre-pandemic. Now you think that, at some point in the undetermined future, maybe it will open $70 million. Or possibly $30 million. Are you going to take that sort of chance with this asset? Or would you rather bootstrap the part of your business that looks like the future—meaning, your streaming service—and eschew the theatrical release altogether?

And what happens then? When the theater chains enter bankruptcy and become distressed assets, who is going to buy them? Because, again, movie exhibition is a low-margin business which has been in decline for several years. The theater chains themselves have functionally zero assets—they own seats, screens, projectors, and popcorn machines. That’s it.

The NYT has a marginally more sanguine take.

This new report from PositiveMoney, a progressive UK nonprofit, has a great treatment of the question:

Fundamentally, there are two main types of payment systems or transfer mechanisms: token-based and accountbased systems (Kahn et al, 2018, pp.8-11). Both are record keeping arrangements, but they are distinguished by their identification requirements.

The primary example of a token-based payments system is cash, where what really matters is the identification of the payment instrument: making sure that the note or coin is not counterfeit. It also constitutes a decentralised payment system, as the clearing process occurs bilaterally when the money instrument is transferred between the transacting parties. In this case, the cash itself is the record, acting “as a device that summarizes past production, trade and consumption decisions” (Kocherlakota, 1998, in ibid. p. 8).

The most important account-based payment systems in most modern economies are commercial bank deposits and central bank reserves (CBRs). What is crucial for account-based systems is the identification of the accounts of the transacting parties so the transfer of funds can happen and the transaction to be cleared. This record keeping is done by a single trusted party (such as the central bank when banks transact using central bank reserves) or by third parties (for example, when transactions happen between two people who have accounts at different banks), usually for a fee.

An account-based CBDC requires a centralised payment system to clear transactions (controlled by a trusted party or trusted third parties), whereas a token based system could be decentralised, with clearing happening between those conducting any given exchange.

Crypto folks will recognize these approaches under the names permissioned and permissionless. Two quick points:

  1. Any serious proposal for a digital dollar should be either token-based, or include a token-based component in addition to an account-based option. Digital cash must have at least feature parity with physical cash.
  2. It’s fascinating that the proponents of CBDC who seem to have all the energy these days are not the usual suspects, but modern monetary theory types who want to are no fans of commercial banking.

Dr. Andrew Artenstein, a physician executive at Baystate Health in Springfield, MA, writing in the New England Journal of Medicine:

Our supply-chain group has worked around the clock to secure gowns, gloves, face masks, goggles, face shields, and N95 respirators. These employees have adapted to a new normal, exploring every lead, no matter how unusual. Deals, some bizarre and convoluted, and many involving large sums of money, have dissolved at the last minute when we were outbid or outmuscled, sometimes by the federal government. Then we got lucky, but getting the supplies was not easy.

A lead came from an acquaintance of a friend of a team member. After several hours of vetting, we grew confident of the broker’s professional pedigree and the potential to secure a large shipment of three-ply face masks and N95 respirators. The latter were KN95 respirators, N95s that were made in China. We received samples to confirm that they could be successfully fit-tested. Despite having cleared this hurdle, we remained concerned that the samples might not be representative of the bulk of the products that we would be buying. Having acquired the requisite funds — more than five times the amount we would normally pay for a similar shipment, but still less than what was being requested by other brokers — we set the plan in motion. Three members of the supply-chain team and a fit tester were flown to a small airport near an industrial warehouse in the mid-Atlantic region. I arrived by car to make the final call on whether to execute the deal. Two semi-trailer trucks, cleverly marked as food-service vehicles, met us at the warehouse. When fully loaded, the trucks would take two distinct routes back to Massachusetts to minimize the chances that their contents would be detained or redirected.

Hours before our planned departure, we were told to expect only a quarter of our original order. We went anyway, since we desperately needed any supplies we could get. Upon arrival, we were jubilant to see pallets of KN95 respirators and face masks being unloaded. We opened several boxes, examined their contents, and hoped that this random sample would be representative of the entire shipment. Before we could send the funds by wire transfer, two Federal Bureau of Investigation agents arrived, showed their badges, and started questioning me. No, this shipment was not headed for resale or the black market. The agents checked my credentials, and I tried to convince them that the shipment of PPE was bound for hospitals. After receiving my assurances and hearing about our health system’s urgent needs, the agents let the boxes of equipment be released and loaded into the trucks. But I was soon shocked to learn that the Department of Homeland Security was still considering redirecting our PPE. Only some quick calls leading to intervention by our congressional representative prevented its seizure. I remained nervous and worried on the long drive back, feelings that did not abate until midnight, when I received the call that the PPE shipment was secured at our warehouse.

For the pointer I thank Tate.

The link is to SCMP video of events described by the FT this way:

A strict lockdown of [Hubei] province ended on Wednesday, but many of its 6m residents who work in other parts of China are finding it impossible to leave as other local authorities defy central government orders and refuse to lift travel restrictions.

On Friday that opposition erupted into violence as thousands of Hubei migrant workers tried to cross over a bridge linking Huangmei in Hubei to Jiujiang in neighbouring Jiangxi province. Video footage posted online showed police officers from Jiujiang and Huangmei wrestling with each other and hundreds of people attacking police and overturning their vehicles.

Hours after the incident took place, police from Jiujiang and Huangmei issued statements online, which were deleted shortly afterwards, accusing each other of causing trouble.

This happened on March 28 and I missed it at the time. It strikes me that China’s first major recession since its market reforms might be poised to expose serious fissures in the country. Here is one analysis of the government’s response:

This incident may not be the last of its type to emerge as a result of the pandemic, and the CCP has taken active steps over the past two months to reinforce political indoctrination for local police agencies—thereby attempting to ensure that police officers will remain loyal to the ruling party in the event of any major incidents that might threaten “social order and stability” (社会治安稳定, shehui zhi’an wending) in the country.

This is a nice sentiment, but its prescription amounts to “want it more” and “put politics aside.” I don’t know what to do with that.

Great sentence:

And this is the truth about reality. It really does exist (whatever the postmodernists might argue). It’s complicated. And even if it can be ignored or forgotten in our very human discourses, it wins in the end. This virus is, in a way, a symbol of that reality.

And this is why I think the crisis is a potentially mortal blow for intersectionality.

Best thing I’ve read on the crisis even if I don’t agree with all of it. The punchline a lot of people are not going to like:

It is only by recognising the frailties of liberal societies that their most essential values can be preserved. Along with fairness they include individual liberty, which as well as being worthwhile in itself is a necessary check on government. But those who believe personal autonomy is the innermost human need betray an ignorance of psychology, not least their own. For practically everyone, security and belonging are as important, often more so. Liberalism was, in effect, a systematic denial of this fact.

J. Kenji López-Alt at the NYT:

Food product dating, as the U.S. Department of Agriculture calls it, is completely voluntary for all products (with the exception of baby food, more on that later). Not only that, but it has nothing to do with safety. It acts solely as the manufacturer’s best guess as to when its product will no longer be at peak quality, whatever that means. Food manufacturers also tend to be rather conservative with those dates, knowing that not all of us keep our pantries dark and open our refrigerators as minimally as necessary.

It is by Zou Chuanwei, based on all available public info, and it’s the best I’ve seen. It buttresses my analysis that the yuan’s digitization does not pose any serious threat to the dollar’s global reserve currency position:

In contrast [to CIPS], DC/EP only requires users to have DC/EP wallets, which is much easier to have than to open RMB deposit accounts. DC/EP transactions are cross-border by nature. So, DC/EP can effectively promote the use of RMB abroad (Figure 9).

However, cross-border payments are only a necessary but not a sufficient condition for RMB internationalization. To be an international currency, RMB should be freely convertible, stable in value, extensively used in international trade, and widely accepted abroad. Besides, China’s financial market should be well regulated, mature and open. China should also forcefully enforce property rights protection.

Not holding my breath on those.

From the blog post annoucing their new white paper:

In the first Libra white paper, we announced a path to eventually transitioning the network to a permissionless system. In the months since, a key concern we heard is that it would be challenging for the Libra Association to guarantee that network compliance provisions would be maintained. In the updated white paper, we present the approach we are exploring to offer new entrants the ability to compete for the provision of core network services and participate in the governance of the Libra network while ensuring the Association’s ability to meet regulatory expectations.

Other changes include adding single-currency-backed stablecoins, and it seems like the libra itself will now be backed, in turn, by those single-currency coins.

Writing at Marginal Revolution:

From the point of view of the non-elites, the elites with their models and data and projections have shut the economy down. The news is full of pleas for New York, which always seemed like a suspicious den of urban inequity, but their hometown is doing fine. The church is closed, the bar is closed, the local plant is closed. Money is tight. Meanwhile the elites are laughing about binging Tiger King on Netflix. It doesn’t feel right. I can understand that or feel that I must try to understand that.

Not good according to Paulina Neuding and Tino Sanandaji:

There are indications that Sweden is experiencing a higher death toll than its neighbors. While the Scandinavian countries reported their first fatalities at roughly the same time, Sweden as of April 8 had 687 fatalities, Denmark 218 and Norway 93. In per capita terms, Sweden is faring clearly worse than Norway and increasingly worse than Denmark.

And they don’t seem to have avoided the economic hit, either.

According to official Swedish estimates, Sweden’s GDP is expected to contract by 3.4 percent this year, which is better than the 5.5 percent decline projected in a euro zone dragged down by Italy and Spain, but worse than the 2.9 percent decline prognosticated for the United States.

We should thank the Swedes for this natural experiment when the inevitable recriminations about the lockdowns start here in the U.S.

A good explainer from Quartz (and why The Who won’t refer to it by its proper name):

Covid-19 refers to the disease. “Co” refers to corona, “vi” to virus, and “d” to disease. The virus that causes the disease is SARS-CoV-2, which was named by the International Committee on Taxonomy of Viruses. The “SARS” part of the name refers to the new coronavirus’ genetic link to the virus that caused the 2003 SARS outbreak. So one tests positive for SARS-CoV-2, not Covid-19, as it’s the virus and not the disease that does the infecting. The WHO lays out this distinction clearly on its website.

The WHO says that “using the name SARS can have unintended consequences in terms of creating unnecessary fear for some populations, especially in Asia which was worst affected by the SARS outbreak in 2003.” The paneled is making people realize how much public health is about social engineering rather than science.

The inimitable and estimable Peter McCormack had me and Peter on his podcast to discuss the basics of how law and regulation applies to Bitcoin. It’s part of his Bitcoin Beginner’s Guide, which is aimed at folks just getting up to speed on the tech and ecosystem. It was great fun doing it and I hope you will enjoy listening to it.

Businesses such as importers and exporters of goods ranging from baby products to furniture in Asia and Europe are using so-called stablecoins including Tether and USD Coin, according to payment processors and over-the-counter trading desks.

Transactions with suppliers and vendors already reach up to $10 million a day at Singapore-based QCP Capital, which caters to such clients. At payment-services provider B2BinPay, transactions already account for millions of dollars a month, and are increasing daily, said the Moscow-based company.

Makes total sense, especially for gray market businesses with tenuous connections to the dollar financial system. Given that most trade is denominated in dollars, cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin may not have previously caught on because of the currency risk, but USD stablecoins fit. Tether makes up most of the market, but

In other nations such as Indonesia, businesses often prefer more regulated stablecoins, such as USD Coin, which are issued by U.S.-regulated financial institutions and audited every month, Sit said.

I imagine that Centre and USDC issuers welcome this growing use. I wonder, though, if this catches on, what their reaction might be if there’s an explosion in growth driven by active avoidance of the US-dominated financial system, and not just small firms seeking efficiencies.

Somewhat related, adult entertainment website Pornhub has added Tether to the payment options available to performers after PayPal cut off the site. Again, makes sense. These performers want to avoid the payments networks that will derisk them, but they’re not interested in the currency risk of accepting Bitcoin. I’m sure they’d also welcome the additional safety that would come from regulatory oversight of stablecoin issuers as long as their use remains permissionless.

Again, I wonder what issuer reaction will be if this kind of gray market use really takes off. I can imagine that if stablecoins like USDC had been around when Backpage lost its payments options whether it wouldn’t have turned to it rather than Bitcoin. If it had, there’s no doubt the issuers would have gotten the same treatment from politicians as did the payments services that ultimately dropped Backpage. The key difference is that as (typically) ERC-20 tokens, it’s not clear to me issuers can do much to single out and prohibit use by particular parties.

I recently turned on my colleague Peter on to Cal Newport’s great book, Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World, and Peter really took to it. Among other things, Newport identifies four different styles of work that are conducive getting deep work done: monastic, bimodal, rhythmic, and journalist.

Peter gravitates to the monastic, which means that he needs to seclude himself and shut off all distractions for extended periods of time so he can fully concentrate on research and writing. I have found the rhythmic strategy to work best for me. I wake up every day at 4 a.m., do a quick workout, and then focus on reading and writing for three hours. If I do that, it doesn’t matter too much if the rest of the day is consumed by shallow work like email and meetings that are beyond my control.

Aside from getting my deep work done and done first thing, I also have the most energy in the morning. By the afternoon my tank is out of gas. This morning I told myself I would write a blog post later in the day and that was a mistake. Writing this would probably be better and a lot more fun if I had done it this morning. That’s the other key to a rhythmic strategy: you have to be consistent or else you’ll soon find the shallows creeping in.