Longreads + Open Thread

SPACs, Lab Leak, Movies, China, Deng, Bytedance

Longreads

  • The New Yorker profiles Chamath Palihapitiya. There are two basic strategies for pacing yourself in a career. One is to try to work at a fairly even speed most of the time, which adds up to a lot of accomplishment after a while. Another option is to work in extreme sprints, with lots of recovery time in between. The rise of SPACs is great for sprinters relative to marathoners, since the value-adding work can be compressed into a short time. (The dot-com boom was also great for sprinters; if you could put in six months of extremely hard work at the right place/time, you could earn enough to pay for a long and lavish vacation before the next sprint.)

  • Vanity Fair has a longread on the lab-leak hypothesis, and there's a shorter Newsweek article covering similar ground with less emphasis on the details of the US government's response. The story of tracking down evidence for the leak is a very postmodern one. Some of it is about tracking down hard data—using metadata to prove that a virus was being studied at a time when it allegedly wasn't, for example. And some of it just consists of catching people behaving like they had something to hide in September 2019, before there was any awareness of the pandemic. To be highly confident in the lab-leak hypothesis based on that data is to have high confidence that the cover-up behavior is a reliable guide to evidence that something needed covering-up. The virus' origins are still a hard question to answer, and in some sense it doesn't matter. But as Tyler Cowen points out, the wet market story is a about Old China and the lab-leak story is one that blames New China.

  • And in other China-related news, Hollywood Reporter talks about fraying relationships between movie studios and China. This is not the first time studios have carefully vetted content to avoid offending people; the Hays Code gave movie studios a long list of groups never to offend. The issue then and now is that there's one segment of the audience (and the funding) that cares very strongly about avoiding the mention of certain topics, and a much broader audience that's indifferent—you can boycott movies for mentioning Taiwan, but it's hard to organize a counter-boycott of all movies that don't mention Taiwan.

Books

  • The Chinese Economy is a detailed look at how China works. It's especially interesting to compare it to other countries that shifted from a command model to a more market-based one. In Eastern Europe, this often took the form of a "big bang" privatization, which tended to cause high inflation and a depression. The reason was that even when the overall economy sort of functioned, there were some parts of the supply chain that subsidized other parts; when the whole system was privatized, the loss-making parts of the economy shut down, and then stopped implicitly subsidizing the rest. Fixing that was an expensive process. The Chinese process was, paradoxically, higher growth but much more cautious, with bits of the economy privatized and hermetically sealed-off from the state-run bits.

  • Deng Xiaoping: A Revolutionary Life: if you've ever longed for a nonpartisan leader who would just focus on the pragmatic task of making the country work better, this is a good book to read very carefully. Deng Xiaoping was an extremely effective leader, and was able to implement policies that ranged from Maoist land redistribution (a very bloody process) to reintroducing market forces—or, at least, allowing them to be reintroduced despite opposition from other powerful figures. But, as it turns out, the work a pragmatist does is very much defined by ideological context.

  • The Attention Factory: partly a story about the maturing of China's tech ecosystem, and partly a story about how nice it is to have superior unit economics. ByteDance's products tended to get more usage and better retention than competitors, which meant that any marketing tool the competition used could be used even more effectively by them.

Open Thread

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