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What the President Cannot Do

Our new President addressed Congress last night. Most years this is called the State of the Union address, but given that President Trump has only been in office for a little more than a month he's not really in a position to take the blame or the credit for the state of the nation, so this time around it's just a speech given in front of the assembled representatives and senators. Voters who miss Obama and wish that Clinton had won the election would love to blame President Trump for every ill that bedevils the nation, but the state of the economy, the state of representative democracy, the state of the climate were all pretty much as they are now when Mr. Trump took office.

I heard a radio call-in show today in which invited guests and screened callers voiced their opinions about the tone and content of the speech. The topic turned to the fact the Mr. Trump made job creation the top priority in his campaign. Some folks thought that he was sincere, other thought he was speaking to the concerns of the shrinking middle class but only for crassly opportunistic reasons. No one that I heard mentioned the possibility that whether or not the President warps us back to the halcyon days of the post-war boom is not really up to him. Nobody that I heard considered the possibility that his sincerity or lack thereof has no bearing on the question of whether he will bring back abundant jobs with good pay and benefits.

There was a time when those kinds of jobs were plentiful and didn't require super-human efforts starting in pre-K to secure. Those were times when America was the only intact economy left standing after a devastating world war. At the start of that economic boom, the United States was the number one producer of oil. Neither of those conditions will be returning in our lifetimes.

Another factor that prevents us from returning to the 20th-century norm of the single-income, middle-class household involves information technology, machine learning, and, eventually, robotics. There is no piece of legislation that President Trump can introduce into Congress that will dissuade Google, Microsoft, Facebook, Apple and Amazon from pushing hard to be the first player to bring new AI and robotics applications to market. The competition is too intense, the "first mover" advantages too great. The President has no say in the matter. Congress has no say in the matter. The CEOs of these companies have practically no say in the matter. They get to formulate strategies, but they don't have the choice of opting out of the game or deliberately changing its rules.

The rules will change over time, and sometimes they will shift dramatically over a short period, but all the masters of "the Stacks" can do is stay nimble and adapt to changing conditions. If they pause, even for noble reasons, they will lose. If any of them look like they are willing to lose, they will be replaced. Their agency is far more constricted than their enormous wealth suggests.

Government policy matters, but it is not omnipotent. Public figures, particularly in government, are thought leaders of a sort. They generally don't do the heavy cognitive lifting in society, but they throw their considerable clout behind some social narratives and denigrate others. The most important thing the President can do is either prop up old and increasingly maladaptive stories or give a voice to new alternatives when it comes to the relationship between stable employment and the ability to provide for basic needs. He can choose to stand by our achievement as the world's most prolific jailer or he can join the rising chorus of voices calling for long-needed reform. He can stall the transition away from petroleum-dependent infrastructure or he can facilitate that transition. He can perpetuate the narrative that billionaires earned what they have and that the failure to earn a 20th Century middle-class living is a matter of personal and moral failure, or he can acknowledge that the process by which our economy distributes rewards and burdens is out of whack.

What he cannot do is take us back to the 20th Century.  I'm hearing very little indication from the mainstream left or right that anybody understands this.


( 3 comments — Leave a comment )
Mar. 2nd, 2017 05:15 pm (UTC)
I find the onward push of technology interesting. Especially how and maybe why it is funded.

I have been living in the belly of the beast for the last half year. Working in a small company that is also trying to disrupt an established industry. What is most interesting is the relative lack of business savvy of a lot of the people involved. There is no clear plan how we can make money, no clear strategy beyond the next sprint. It could be characterized as a bunch of nerds having fun with technology but someone is paying for it. Money just seems to flow into a business that promises disruption irrespective of any credible long term business plan.

Initially I was working under the assumption that I had incomplete information and must be missing the big picture. The longer I look the more apparent it becomes that there is no really route to a profitable long term business. Maybe the plan is to build a saleable IP portfolio. Maybe we can be enough of a nuisance to one of the existing players in our market that they will buy us. I remain sceptical about both potential scenarios.

I can't help but wonder if the chaos created by the cycles of disruption means that there are always opportunities for those investors. Crash an established market and you might be able to buy up a few old asset and IP rich business or just shake them out.

I guess that is what is implied by creative destruction although it all seems a little haphazard.

Maybe I'm looking for a plan that isn't there. Maybe some people just have too much money and need something to do with it?
Mar. 2nd, 2017 05:41 pm (UTC)
Re: Disruption
It seems likely to me, Dode, that many investors with money they want to put to work have no clearer notion of what leads to tech start-up success than do the strategists at your company.
Mar. 2nd, 2017 05:56 pm (UTC)
Re: Disruption
I suspect you are correct.
( 3 comments — Leave a comment )

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