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Monday, October 29, 2018

Saudi Arabia and Silicon Valley’s Crisis of Conscience

Mark Zuckerberg meets with Mohammad bin Salman (Reuters)

“There is a higher court than courts of justice and that is the court of conscience. It supersedes all other courts.”
-Mahatma Gandhi

Governments routinely do business with oppressive regimes based on geopolitical, intelligence-sharing and counter-terrorism requirements. I am not absolving governments, but merely stating the realities of operating in a complex and increasingly inter-connected world where it is harder to be black and white about these choices. However the same constraints do not hold true for private corporations. There is nothing preventing them from boycotting or refusing to take money from bad actors and brutally oppressive regimes, particularly when they go against the stated values of the company.

I think we can also make a distinction between older generation of companies and the new ones in the digital age. The Exxon Mobiles and Goldman Sachs’s of the world never claimed to be ‘do-gooders’ or touted the inherent social values of their business models. They were clear about focusing on the bottom line, profits and increasing shareholder value above all else and did not care if they were profiting from Mother Theresa or Nicolas Maduro.

However, Silicon Valley startups have always claimed to have a strong moral compass and repeatedly tout the social good they do and stand for. They have corporate motto's that say things like “Don’t be Evil” and spend much on PR touting all the good they do in the world. Yet the vast majority of these same companies have found ways to rationalize and do business with Saudi Arabia. Uber justified its launch in Saudi Arabia in 2014 by saying it would help women who were not allowed to drive, even though Saudi women were against Uber launching.

While it is true that Saudi rulers have always ruled with an iron fist, most limited their brutality to within their own borders and also took pains to manage the optics for their democratic and freedom-loving allies. However, with the appointment of Mohammed bin Salman, or MBS as he is known, the Kingdom’s transgressions have not only grown bolder but now go well beyond their borders.

The Prince began his reign by extra-judicially imprisoning elite businessmen and ruling family members, reportedly torturing and coercing them to hand over billions in cash and properties, publicizing his actions as a ‘crackdown on corruption'. He also purged the security services and other high ranking government officials, filling key posts with loyalists. He has placed his mother under house arrest to keep her from advising her husband, the King, whose health is dwindling and his moments of lucidity said to be fleeting.

The thirty-three year old Prince has a record of acting impulsively, as he has shown with an ill-conceived blockade of Qatar, the brazen abduction of Lebanon’s prime minister, and an unrestrained war in Yemen which has resulted in a quagmire that the UN calls the worst humanitarian crisis on the planet

It is true that MBS has opened a few movie theaters and has finally given Saudi women the right to drive, but at the same time he has jailed and exiled leading women activists, purged the clerical ranks and ruthlessly suppressed all dissent. Yet, Silicon Valley has been championing MBS as a great reformer. It seems that the billions invested in cash-starved Unicorns have washed away all of MBS’s sins and Silicon Valley’s corporate ethics along with them.

Companies ranging from Google and Facebook to Blackrock have all been clamoring to shake MBS's hand and strike lucrative deals with the Kingdom. It is no surprise then that MBS grows more reckless, as companies continue to pat him on the back, and felt emboldened enough to brazenly murder a journalist who was a US permanent resident, and expected to face no consequences for this heinous crime.

Here is a list of some of the US companies awash in Saudi money:
· Saudis own 5% of Tesla, 5% of Uber (making them the largest shareholder), 5% of Lyft, 5.2% of Twitter (which is more than Jack Dorsey owns) and 2.3% of Snapchat.
· They invested $461 million in Magic Leap, the hottest US virtual reality company.
· They have committed $20 billion to Blackstone Group’s infrastructure fund.
· Through the Softbank Vision Fund, in which Saudi Arabia is the principle investor, they have invested:
o   $4.4 billion in WeWork
o   $2.25 billion in GM Cruise Holdings
o   They own shares in WAG, Slack, Door Dash and SoFi.
It is true that the Saudi’s have also invested in UK, French, Indian and Chinese companies but the bulk is US based companies.

I am not naïve and understand that business cannot succeed based on purely moral decision-making; profit motives will always collide with doing what is right. For the most part companies manage to find a reasonable balance between these two competing forces, but my issue is that Silicon Valley pretends to wear morals and principles on its sleeve, preaching that their growing monopolies are forces for good. How do they justify being owned and increasingly funded by entities that make no bones about having neither morals nor principles?

A large part of the problem lies not in capitalism itself, but in the broken system of capitalism Silicon Valley has engineered and vigorously championed in the last few decades. It is a system that encourages a winner-take-all mentality and even rewards companies that are not profitable.

It is quite normal today for a company to have an IPO long before it is profitable, like Twitter and Snapchat both did. In fact Snapchat, in it its IPO disclosure, stated, "We have incurred operating losses in the past, expect to incur operating losses in the future, and may never achieve or maintain profitability," and yet this did nothing to discourage institutional and individual investors who flocked to participate in its initial offering.

Instead of using sound business metrics like earnings, sales or revenue to measure companies, Silicon Valley has made it dangerous and fashionable to look purely at things like ‘stickiness,’ in terms of how often users interact with a service or app on a daily basis. As a result, companies are being incentivized to make long-term losses and thus need constant infusions of cash to grow artificially and rapidly expand their base of users.

Some of the most highly valued startups today even lack real competitive differentiation and barriers to entry like Uber and WeWork, so the only thing fueling their competitiveness is infusions of cash. The issue with this winner-take-all model of capitalism, one devoid of business fundamentals, is that it encourages companies to cut corners, act in cut-throat ways, and ignore the most basic principles of ethical behaviour - simply to stay ahead of competitors.

Ultimately, this model leads to running out of ‘good’ money and avenues for hyper-growth, and startups are forced to compromise on their stated ideals and acquiesce to any suitor with deep pockets.

The truth is that this discussion around Saudi Arabia’s behaviour should have taken place a long time ago. To some extent one can understand why governments need to deal countries whose values conflict with our own, but it is harder to make a case for why companies, especially those who claim to cherish ‘values’ as a primary reason for their own existence, are in bed with them.

While it is true that many CEO’s like Jamie Dimon of JP Morgan Chase, Dara Khosrowshahi of Uber, and Larry Fink of Blackrock dropped out of the recent Saudi investment conference, the BBC reported the majority of these companies still sent junior executives to represent them. Not one of them has cut business ties with Saudi Arabia, and I suspect that no matter what the outcome of the Khashoggi murder investigation is, most of them will not sever ties, as Larry Fink stated on CNBC.

Irrespective of whether MBS is directly implicated or not, I hope that Mr. Khashoggi’s brazen and brutal pre-meditated murder will serve as a wake up for the rest of us. While I do not expect Tesla, Uber or WeWork to be returning the billions they have received anytime soon, I do hope we will begin to hold these companies more accountable for their actions and stop being swayed by their words alone.

Thursday, October 11, 2018

The Dangerous Demise of Expertise

(Image: DreamMakersStore on Etsy)

“An investment in knowledge pays the best interest.”
– Benjamin Franklin 

Way back in 2000 when Google was two years old and four years before Mr. Zuckerberg created The Facebook, during a time when unconnected and pre-smartphone humans roamed the earth, the New York Times wrote an article titled, Suddenly, Everybody's an ExpertIt presciently proclaimed that “an expert, it seems, is now an ordinary person sitting at home, beaming advice over the Internet to anyone who wants help.” The article, after speaking with some real experts, went on to warn that “we are seeing a lot of questions being asked very inappropriately to the wrong kinds of people, and the wrong information is transmitted”. 

In the years that followed, the traditional and sound basis of what we once all agreed was the prerequisite for being an expert - depth of knowledge based on years of study and observation in a specific field - has completely fallen by the wayside.

It feels like an entire generation embraced the type of non-expertise the internet affords, while completely ignoring the dangers of claiming expertise without deep knowledge or specialisation in subject matters. Every second professional on LinkedIn is a self-proclaimed expert in some subject matter; the word has lost its meaning.

I have great admiration for Barack Obama, but I would never rely on him for legal advice. Nor would I let Elon Musk, arguably a genius, perform an appendectomy. Being an expert has nothing to do with intelligence, achievement or celebrity – expertise comes from knowledge that is acquired over a lifetime of study, research, observation, participation and specialisation in a subject.

We have now reached a point where we believe that success in one field translates to other fields. In part, this fallacy is based on the much-touted image of the successful entrepreneur, an image that Silicon Valley has been mythologizing for years. The myth goes like this. A tech mogul who is smart enough to accumulate massive wealth by creating a single life-changing product like a touchscreen smartphone, a search engine, a web-based retail store, an electronic payment platform or an operating system is also equipped to solve all of humankind's most pressing problems.

Granted, tycoons and inventors tend to have massive egos, but this takes arrogance to new and dangerously ignorant heights. Even the robber barons of the past, like Andrew Carnegie and John D. Rockefeller (still considered the wealthiest American of all time), were not arrogant enough to believe that their wealth and power made them better positioned to solve the serious social issues of their time. They assuaged the guilt of accumulating fortunes through unscrupulous means both by donating generously to public institutions and by founding universities, libraries and hospitals that could benefit society. They merely wrote the cheques and never got personally involved in directing these philanthropic ventures, which they rightly left to the domain experts in each field.

Today, it is a different story with people like Bill Gates shaping policy for US public schools and Jeff Bezos announcing that his foundation will launch and operate Montessori- based pre-schools. No matter how well-intentioned and intelligent these men are, the fact remains that they know nothing about improving pedagogy compared to experts who have dedicated their lives to education, both inside and outside of the classroom.

According to the AP, since 2001, the Gates foundation has contributed more than $6 billion toward reshaping American schools” and has had an outsize influence in shaping everything from classroom curriculum to teacher evaluation and student performance. The results of this well-intentioned intervention speak for themselves. During the last decade and a half, US school rankings have continued to decline among its peers; PISA results from 2015 placed the U.S. 38th out of 71 countries in math, 24th in science. Among OECD countries we ranked 30th in math and 19th in science.

At the other end of the spectrum we are muddying the waters by mistaking celebrity for expertise. Jenny McCarthy, an actress and mother of an autistic child, expounds on the dangers of vaccines and spreading scientifically debunked links between vaccination and autism. Cynthia Nixon believes she would make a competent Governor of the third largest state in the country without any people management, P&L or public policy experience. We seem to have reached a nadir of accepting wealth and celebrity as sole qualifications for expertise versus experience based on deep knowledge.

Every second actor now appends the word ‘activist’ to their credentials, yet not one of them has spent a day in prison or risked his or her life on the frontlines. I love Emma Stone and believe she is a powerhouse on screen, but why was she invited to speak at the UN? Are we suggesting that a Hollywood actress making millions of dollars is a better spokesperson for women’s rights than women like Hajiya Laila Dogonyaro and Loujain al-Hathloul who risked life and limb standing up to oppressive regimes? Or are we saying that we are so fickle that “window dressing afforded by celebrity proponents is somehow crucial for advocacy on human rights and feminist issues”? This is a dangerous trend and one that portends to mask the ugliness of serious issues while stealing the spotlight from true experts and rightful heroes.

There is no question that people in positions of authority have let us down and the world is facing a crisis of leadership. The Bush administration started a war under false premises with the US media sitting by idly. The Obama administration blatantly and repeatedly lied to the public about the extent of domestic spying by the NSA. The global financial crisis was a direct result of lax regulatory oversight across the globe. Even the Catholic Church and NGO’s have not been immune with the Red Cross’s financial impropriety in Haiti exposed and news of UN peacekeepers raping young girls in Africa over decades. From corporations to governments, there are ample examples why people all over the world have lost faith in experts and authority and are desperately searching for alternatives.

The Edelman Trust Barometer, which measures public trust in institutions, found for the first time in its 17 year history a decline in trust across all institutions - business, media, government, and NGOs. In a majority of countries surveyed, the general population no longer trusts institutions to do what is right”. The Edelman report summed up the findings by saying that, with the fall of trust, the majority of respondents now lack full belief that the overall system is working for them.” 

I agree with the Edelman report that in every democracy the systems and institutions meant to protect the people have failed. In every country people have consistently been let down by elected officials, corporate CEO’s and public stewards. Yet the answer is not to completely abandon these institutions, disregard experts, turn to unaccountable celebrities and trust billionaires with often-conflicting motives for the answers. Instead we need to focus efforts on rebuilding trust in these public and private institutions, create greater transparency and demand accountability from elected and unelected officials who hold positions of authority. And we need to use the law to prosecute those who have abused power, from abusive cardinals to errant CEO’s.

If we do not start to reverse this trend by respecting knowledge-based expertise once again, one day we will end up with a billionaire reality TV star in the White House; one who believes he is an expert on everything.