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Albert Wenger

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Thursday, August 13, 2020 - 5:42pm

I have been meaning to write a blog post about Marxism following an exchange in the comments to one of my posts about Trump’s dictatorial tendencies. Essentially the thrust of the comment was that Marxism is a bigger threat in the US today than fascism. I disagree with this assertion, but I do think that the extremes to which we have taken capitalism have opened the door for a resurgence of beliefs that it needs to be toppled entirely rather than shrunken dramatically, as I propose in The World After Capital.

I want to start by pointing out a few things that should be obvious but maybe aren’t. First, there is a huge body of Marxist thinking that has evolved over more than a century and entire books have been written about narrow subfields, such as say Marxist critiques of modern cinema. I find it somewhat comical to think that anyone would find this a threat — it is a valid mode of criticism, which one can debate on its merits, but which in no way is going to give rise to a revolution. When people say that the liberal arts are overrun with Marxist thinking, it is useful to keep this in mind.

Second, there are policies, such as the Green New Deal or Single Payer Healthcare that I disagree with for a variety of reasons (mostly related to their approaches to labor and innovation) but which are not Marxist per se. Applying the Marxist label to them is often an attempt to smear them and avoid a debate on the merits. Canada and the UK have national health systems and last I checked neither of them is a Marxist country. Here it is worth keeping in mind that healthcare is but one sector of the economy and we have other heavily regulated or government owned sectors (e.g. water and sewage).

So the central idea that matters and is worth discussing is that of class struggle between labor and capital that can ultimately get resolved only through worker control of the means of production (and by extension the abolishment of capitalists). The first thing to note is that Marx was perceptive and right in understanding that there is a conflict here — that the interests of those providing labor often diverge from the interest of those providing capital. The second thing to note is that this conflict lay somewhat dormant for many decades as capitalism produced material progress that was widely shared. And the third thing to note is that with the advent of digital technology, the role of capital has changed (again this is the central theme of my book The World After Capital).

What then is wrong with the Marxist idea? The key problem is one of scale. It is entirely possible to have small worker owned companies and there are tons of successful examples for that. The question is how do you do implement worker ownership for something that requires thousands or tens of thousands of people, such as say a car company? Or at even bigger scale, how does worker ownership apply to the economy as a whole? One very quickly runs into governance issues which defy easy solution. That has been the key source of the problems with the attempted implementations of the Marxist model. So far the result has inevitably been a bureaucracy that wields great power and becomes deeply entrenched often abusing the very workers it was meant to represent. This is especially true in the model of Marxism where the means of production are owned outright by the state as a proxy for workers (the idea being that the state *IS* the workers, but the state inevitably winds up being its own entity).

Now I should be quick to point out that the same governance problem also exists in capitalism, but in theory bureaucratic excess is checked there by the functioning of markets. I say in theory, because in practice, especially over the last few decades of the rise of managerial capitalism combined with ever more concentrated markets and regulatory capture, the bureaucratic hierarchy has in fact become largely unaccountable (as have large concentrations of financial capital). We see this is in many forms including the extraordinary rise of managerial compensation as well as various abuses of market power.

So where does all of this leave us? I believe that the idea that all means of production should be owned by the state is a genuinely dangerous one due to the power that it vests in what becomes an unaccountable bureaucracy.  The ideas that we have well-functioning capitalism today or for that matter that capitalism can solve all problems are, however, equally dangerous. As long as we promote these (which unfortunately most of the political establishment in the US does, including much of the Democratic Party) we will have more and more people flocking back to ideas, such as Marxism, which argue that we should overthrow capitalism entirely.

My book The World After Capital, is an explicit attempt to point to an alternative path. A path in which over time capitalist activity will shrink as a part of human affairs, much as agriculture has gone from being the defining aspect of societies to being one of many endeavors.

Tuesday, July 28, 2020 - 8:04am

I wrote a post last week that incensed some people who took issue both with my use of the term fascism and with the apparent focus on the deployment of DHS agents in Portland. Based on the comments here is a new post.

I believe there is a clear and present danger of Trump attempting to become a dictator this fall. I am putting this at less than 10% probability but significantly above 0%. Enough so that I believe now is the time to push back hard against this possibility and not after it has happened.

For reference, I had a hard time in 2016 convincing people – including people I knew on the Hilary Clinton campaign – that Trump had a good chance of winning. It is exactly because people simply couldn’t imagine it happening that they made a lot of bad choices, such as not campaigning in some states. Similarly, if you cannot imagine the possibility of a Trump dictatorship you will not take steps to prevent it.

Let me start by saying that I deem it unlikely that Trump has a masterplan for becoming a dictator. Then again he probably didn’t have a masterplan for becoming president but he pulled it off nonetheless and being a reality show host worked well in that regard (whether planned or not), as did his embrace of Twitter and his ability to inoculate himself against rational criticism. Time and again Trump has shown the ability to seize opportunities that present themselves and part of the opportunity has always been that opponents underestimate what he is capable of.

So what about dictatorship? Well for starters it is clear that Trump publicly admires dictators and that he revels in power. This is obviously not new but something he has announced for a long time in many different forms, including the design of his homes in dictator style.

What has Trump done in office that substantiates any risk? Here are some of the actions that I am aware of that are part of an overall pattern that demonstrates the potential of a flip to dictatorship. These are all actions that have historic precedent as part of dictatorial power grabs:

  • Trump has declared the press an “enemy of the people” and a source of “fake news”

  • Trump has held continued rallies throughout his presidency

  • Trump has agencies run by “actings” who serve at his digression and have not gone through a congressional vetting process which gives him direct power

  • Trump has undermined the independence and effectiveness of the judiciary through his appointments of unqualified judges, verbal attacks on judges that have ruled against him, and by commuting the sentence of someone convicted of obstructing Congress

  • Trump is tweeting frequently about how the election is being rigged as a way of putting the legitimacy of the results in question

  • Trump has been torpedoing the United States Postal Service as a way of interfering with mail-in ballots

  • Trump is moving federal agents into predominantly Democratic cities, nominally under a “law and order” agenda

  • Trump has pardoned soldiers implicated in war crimes and has publicly belittle military leadership. [*]

  • Trump has interfered with the functioning of the Federal Election Commission (FEC) by not nominating commissioners depriving the FEC repeatedly of a quorum. [*]

I am sure there are other actions that fit the pattern that I am missing and I would love for people to contribute more examples (update: the ones marked with * above are additions based on comments).

My longstanding opposition to Trump, going back to his 2016 campaign, rests on my view that he represents a meaningful threat to the workings of democracy and the principles of critical inquiry and science, which together have accounted for much of the progress that we have achieved.

To be clear, as this was also brought up in comments, I do believe that we require dramatic changes and that recent Presidents, including Obama, were incrementalists which has been completely inadequate fo the challenges we are facing (this is the subject of my book World After Capital). And yes Hilary Clinton would have been an incrementalist as well.

Finally, let me also add, lest someone bring it up as a distraction from the risk discussed here, that I am against violence, including damage to buildings — both because I believe it to be wrong, but also because I think it is ineffective and worse than that plays into the hands of someone who is a potential dictator as it provides an excuse.

PS For one commenter in particular, I will write a post about Marxism also. I do believe its resurgence is deeply problematic but doesn’t pose the same kind of clear and present danger (I will explain both of these in the post).

Monday, July 27, 2020 - 5:08pm

By now, if you are in tech and haven’t been on an extended Techmeme and Twitter break you have heard about GPT-3 a new and massive language model developed by OpenAI. I have played around with it a bit myself and its capabilities are impressive. Here are some thoughts.

The model perfectly illustrates the ever moving bar on what we consider artificial intelligence. Not that long ago facial recognition didn’t work at all, now computers routinely outperform humans. Putting together more than a couple of new sentences that actually made sense was a really challenging problem, GPT-3 routinely cranks out multiple paragraphs. “But it doesn’t understand the sentences” is the immediate objection often heard. Of course “understanding” is as poorly defined a term as “intelligence” so that objection really doesn’t do much.

Instead, a better way of thinking about these capabilities is to consider where and how they can be deployed instead of using humans. One obvious example would be customer support. A customer writes in and someone needs to write an answer. I am not suggesting that anyone should send out GPT-3 produced answers without checking them first, but the number of customer support requests that someone might be able to handle using GPT-3 could go up tremendously. Another great example is producing UI code. This is often a labor intensive part of projects and a lot of engineers dread it as it’s not exactly solving fun problems but rather wrestling with the idiosyncrasies of different platforms. There are already several early demos of how GPT-3 or a model like it could be used for that. And yes, this does and should change how we think about the longterm demand for human software engineers (something I pointed out 6 years ago in a post titled “Software Is Eating Software”).

A similarly faulty line of thinking has been that only humans can be creative. Again this is enabled by a completely underspecified definition of what it means to be creative. Here is an example of a poem that GPT-3 cranked out. Admittedly not exactly a masterwork but if a young student would turn this in the teacher or parents might say “that’s so creative!” But it doesn’t stop here. After a bit of back and forth over Twitter about submitting GPT-3 work to a poetry contest, Joshua Schachter prompted the model for a story about using AI to submit a poem to a contest. And the resulting short story is really quite impressive.

All of this is to say that objections around intelligence and creativity are rooted in definitional problems and also obscure the extraordinary potential of this technology to change the need for human labor. Of course, this is one of the foundational premises of my book World After Capital.

Of course it is also clear how this type of model can be used for all sorts of bad things, such as automating high quality bot attacks on social media or even creating content that can be passed off as having come from a particular author (but was not in fact written by them). This will put a premium on attribution, something I have written about in the past in a post called “Sign All Things.” One key reason for having self sovereign identity, with some probability of that identity being a human attached, is to mitigate against these types of attacks (btw, humans even under their real names say plenty of terrible things, so it doesn’t help with that as people sometimes think).

Finally a brief thought on the question of bias which always arises. Of course models are biased by the data on which they have been trained (at this point this is well established). The same is of course true for humans who are biased based on how they have been trained. But there are some key differences that are worth keeping in mind. The bias in a model is more measurable than for a human – the will produce text after text after text (and it will not be strategic about its answers, well, at least not intentionally strategic, it might be implicitly strategic in as much as it has picked those strategies up from the training data). There is also a much clearer hope of reducing the bias in models compared to humans.

Where does all of that leave us? GPT-3 is a major step forward in the capability set. It shows great new powers and as we know from Spiderman, with that comes great responsibility. There is the responsibility of OpenAI to monitor how this model is used and to measure and reduce its biases. But as importantly is our collective responsibility to create a future that lets humanity benefit broadly from these emerging powers. That is the very subject of World After Capital.

Wednesday, July 22, 2020 - 9:17am

I was born in Germany in 1967. Growing up my friends and I used to wonder why our grandparents hadn’t resisted Hitler’s rise to power. We were young and full of bravado and oh so sure about how outraged and courageous we would have been. But the sad truth of course is that we most likely wouldn’t have and that we were simply talking tough with the double benefits of hindsight and zero actual consequences for ourselves. Most people didn’t protest for one of many possible reasons, including ignorance, disbelief, profiteering, apathy or fear (the latter especially as fascism picked up speed).

Now we are all given an opportunity to protest a slide into fascism right here in the US. Because that is exactly what the deployment of unidentified federal agents into Portland represents. I can’t wait for commenters to show up with anything from “it’s just an election stunt” to “this is just what Portland needs” and seventeen other lame excuses. So let me get this out of the way: if you don’t call this out as fascism, you would not have protested Hitler either. You would have been a supporter or a bystander.

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“Albert, you are being overly dramatic.” No. If this is not your line, you don’t have a line, especially as Trump went ahead and publicly proclaimed his plans to roll this out to other cities. This goes against anything the constitution stands for, from due process to states’ rights. It is a direct attempt to intimidate opposition and fire up an ever more aggressive movement. Oh and let me save you the time to head over to Wikipedia for fascism. Here is the opening sentence “Fascism (/ˈfæʃɪzəm/) is a form of far-right, authoritarian ultranationalism characterized by dictatorial power, forcible suppression of opposition …”

What can you do? Well for starters, use whatever platform you have to call this out as fascism. Then call on your state representatives and senators to do the same. Your governors too. And most importantly get your District Attorneys and Attorney Generals to sue the DHS, as the Oregon has done. We have to use independent institutions as long as these are still functioning. This is crucial because once these go everything goes. And we have to use them to hold the line through the elections in November.

Related: Catalog of excuses.

A version informed by comments: The Threat of a Trump Dictatorship

Albert Wenger is a partner at Union Square Ventures (USV), a New York-based early stage VC firm focused on investing in disruptive networks. USV portfolio companies include: Twitter, Tumblr, Foursquare, Etsy, Kickstarter and Shapeways. Before joining USV, Albert was the president of del.icio.us through the company’s sale to Yahoo. He previously founded or co-founded five companies, including a management consulting firm (in Germany), a hosted data analytics company, a technology subsidiary for Telebanc (now E*Tradebank), an early stage investment firm, and most recently (with his wife), DailyLit, a service for reading books by email or RSS.