Thursday, January 16, 2014

Websites I've Been Enjoying Lately

1. Project Syndicate: Mostly economics essays by experts in the field.

2. Quartz: Fantastic community blog about business with nice buzzfeedy hooks.

3. The Atlantic Cities: Most of the best urbanism blogs are clearly aimed at people working in the field, but this one is very accessible.

4. Aeon: Longform essays with a philosophical/scientific orientation. Of the ideas and concepts that have stuck with me lately, most have come from this site. They have a nice video section also.

5. The Umlaut: Community blog loosely focusing on political philosophy and the liberal arts. One writer, Adam Gurri, is a Nassim Taleb acolyte, who applies that unique analytical frame to novel topics.

6. Yale Environment 360: Most environmental news blogs and sites sacrifice quality in order to post regularly and often. But environmental developments don't really fit with our frenetic news system, and don't require daily analysis. This site posts more infrequently, but with greater depth and agenda-setting power.

7. TechWire: Simply the best aggregator of news and analysis about technology and technology policy.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Bandwidth Discriminators Must Be Cautious

With the recent destruction of the FCC's net neutrality rule, it's theoretically open-season for potential bandwidth discriminators. Quartz cleverly identified one big loser from the decision: Netflix, which currently consumes a massive amount of bandwidth and could be priced out of business by newly-enabled ISPs.

The internet has recently taken great delight in analyzing the various reasons why Netflix's business model doesn't add much value and must either change or collapse. Although I agree that Netflix faces various existential threats, bandwidth discrimination doesn't seem like a big one to me.

The reason is basically that powerful and important people in government and journalism love Netflix, and thus are highly sensitive to its well-being. Elite DC was obsessed with House of Cards for a while. If some over-eager ISP decides to crush Netflix with rate hikes, forcing sudden service and pricing changes, the town will freak out. Similar to the sequester debacle, when Congress acted only when their own creature comforts were threatened, Netflix commands a special prominence within the policymaking elite (and their interns).

My advice for ISPs searching for new profit opportunities created by the ruling is to cautiously test pricing models in areas unlikely to galvanize politically-powerful groups. Even better would be to employ a 'bootlegger and baptist' maneuver and ally with moralizing groups already opposing some internet region. Surely nobody would defend a 'bandwidth sin tax' on streaming pornographic videos or the websites of Colorado marijuana dispensaries, right?

Politicians Need More Procedural Freedom

David Plotz yesterday had an excellent column defending the general principle behind Chris Christie's underhanded tactics in the bridge scandal:
"But excessive hygiene is rampant in Washington. The controlling conservative wing of the Republican Party is addicted to principle. If politics is the art of compromise, we have a huge number of elected officials who are not politicians at all but rather zealots animated by ideology. This consistency, so admirable in a campaign ad, makes governing and legislation nearly impossible."
What he's really getting at is how our modern forms of intensive political journalism emphasize process over outcomes. The shift in political incentives away from deliberation has direct consequences for government effectiveness. Politics isn't merely the process of adding up the static policy preferences of lawmakers. Deliberation, strategy, logrolling, etc. all help to enable compromise legislation.

Another worrisome effect of process journalism punishing lawmakers for bad procedure instead of bad policy concerns the talent pool. In other electoral systems (and previously in the US) politicians were mostly judged on election day for their accomplishments. These days, however, politicians are evaluated constantly, and any tiny deviation from party orthodoxy is identified and punished. This may lead to a selection effect where most of our politicians are those who happen to have identities and policy preferences best fit to the current popular demands, instead of possessing intrinsic characteristics beneficial for governing. A snapshot analysis might suggest that super-responsive politicians are great (that's democracy, right?), but in a deeper, longer-term way these types might be less effective.