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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.

Monday, September 10, 2018

The Right and Wrong of Serena Williams

"To handle yourself, use your head; to handle others, use your heart." 
-Eleanor Roosevelt

There is no doubt in my mind that there is a massive double standard in this world when it comes to the same behaviour demonstrated by men and women. In every sphere of life, from the bedroom and boardroom to the tennis court, outbursts of juvenile, rude, selfish and churlish behaviour are forgiven or excused when men act out, but when a woman does the same it is called hysteria, emotional immaturity and deemed unacceptable.

Many people are making arguments to excuse Serena’s angry outburst on the basis of this double standard. Some are excusing it based on the fact that because of her race, she has had to work many times harder than a white woman to break through in what has been historically a white person’s sport. I have long respected and admired both Williams sisters for their achievements. No question they have succeeded against all the odds. Few people would have the grit and tenacity, even if they had the talent, to stay the course and reach the pinnacle of this sport. For me Serena is the greatest tennis player, male or female, that has ever lived but it still does not give her a right to behave badly.

Something worth mentioning here is that Carlos Ramos, the referee, is considered one of best and fairest in the business; Serena admitted as much during her post match press conference. Mr. Ramos has a reputation for being a stickler for the rules, and has issued conduct violations to both Roger Federer and Novac Djokovic. Venus Williams got a warning for receiving coaching from her box. Andy Murray felt his wrath at the 2016 Olympics for saying “stupid umpiring” and Nick Kyrgios got one for shouting at a towel boy. So while there is no question that issuing the third violation to Ms. Williams without a final warning in a Grand Slam final was overly harsh, looking at Mr. Ramos’s history we can conclude that he has been consistent in his umpiring.

However, I still think Serena raised a larger point about an existing double standard that we need to discuss and address, but in doing so I am not willing to excuse Ms. Williams’s behaviour and still find it completely unacceptable.

The question we need to ask is what are people fighting for, when condoning Serena’s behaviour?

Are they saying that, because men often behave like complete assholes, acting out like juvenile, spoiled, thoughtless, nasty brats who need to belittle others to feel better about their own insecurity; women should have these same rights? The right to make Naomi Osaka feel like shit, through no fault of her own, to make her look like she was at a funeral after winning her first Grand Slam. To steal from her the joy of a great victory over an even greater champion on the grandest stage in the sport? To have her booed for her greatest achievement, booed to the point that she felt the need to apologise for a stunning victory built on showing maturity, tenacity, humility and class beyond her years?

Is this what we are fighting for by condoning her behaviour? There is something better we can demand and strive for out of the events that took place.

We can demand that men no longer get a free pass for their bad behaviour and public outbursts. We can suggest that Kanye West get banned from the MTV music Awards for rudely snatching the mic from Taylor Swift, rather than suggesting him as a host for the next show. We can boycott Alec Baldwin’s movies and TV shows when he leaves messages for his 11 year old daughter calling her a rude, thoughtless pig.” We can ensure that Ray Rice gets a lifetime ban from the NFL, not a pathetic two game suspension for physically abusing his wife.

I have written about why I believe women make more fair and effective leaders than men and it was in the moments when Serena asked the crowd to finally stop booing, and the post-match press conference where she said she ‘could learn from Naomi’ that she won back some hearts and demonstrated the leadership and maturity we expect from an elder statesmen of the sport.

Sports stars, musicians and actors are among the most powerful role models for young, impressionable minds. I believe they should be setting the example by holding themselves to a higher standard because of the pedestal they will always find themselves upon. So I would rather Ms. Williams apologise for her behaviour, to Ms. Osaka, Mr. Carlos and her millions of adoring young fans, and then declare that she is going on a crusade to penalize men equally and end all bad behaviour in her sport.

In the words of one of my favourite people, I hope Ms. Williams and other female luminaries of tennis decide that, “When they go low, we go high”.


Tuesday, July 31, 2018

The Ideological Racism of the Left

“One of the problems with defending free speech is you often have to defend people that you find to be outrageous and unpleasant and disgusting,” 
-Salman Rushdie

As a lifelong liberal I am sad to say that I no longer recognise this new strain of liberalism, one that seems infected by close-mindedness, intolerance and a severely judgmental view of everyone that does not conform to some inane and thin-skinned acid test.

It seems that as the liberal world order began to thrive across the globe in the seventies and eighties, the liberal mind grew smaller. Rather than embrace diversity of thought, the left today seems to take pride in chastising, publicly shaming and tearing down anyone whose thinking diverges even slightly from the liberal mob.

As a result, liberals come across as closed-minded, parochial and so thin skinned that they seem unable or unwilling to recognise that protecting free speech means that everyone is entitled to his or her views, no matter how vehemently we might disagree.

In 2014, Brendan Eich, Co-Founder of non-profit browser Firefox and inventor of the programming language JavaScript, was forced to step down of CEO of his company after a popular dating site called for the boycott of the browser. Mr. Eich’s unforgivable crime: he had made a single donation of $1,000 to a group that opposed gay marriage six years earlier.

Seems it did not matter that Mr. Eich was a highly qualified technology executive who had also been part of creating a company that had a history of an open and inclusive workplace, nor did it matter that there was no charge against him of discriminating against gays by bringing his political views into the workplace. He was punished simply because he had a different opinion. I disagree with his view, but I also respect that he has the right to have it.

More recently, Google, which claims to be a champion of free speech, quashed and censored the freedom for one of their employees. By firing James Damore, Google basically proved his point. His memo titled the ‘Google’s Ideological Echo Chamber’ was arguing that Google's, and more broadly, Silicon Valley’s corporate culture is wholly intolerant of conservative views. Forget the merits of Mr. Danmore’s argument in his memo. The point is that he not only has the right to hold such views, but also to openly share them without fear of persecution or prosecution, provided doing so does not break any laws or violate the first amendment, which he did not.

I have no doubt that Google’s lawyers found sound legal grounds to fire him based on some violation of their corporate policy, but a wiser course for Google, as the Economist argued, would have been for Larry Page to have written a full-throated and detailed rebuttal of Mr Damore’s argument. Google would have shown that it respects free speech, especially when it disagrees, and using data and scientific evidence could have eloquently debunked Mr. Danmore’s contention that women are inferior software engineers and programmers.

The whole point of free speech is not that bad or insensitive views and ideas will cease to exist, but that when we encounter ideas like Mr. Danmore’s, we can use more speech to defeat them with better ideas and actual evidence.

If we shut down opinions simply because we find them unkind or hurtful, we will kill free speech. We need to look at actions and not views alone; this is why expressing even the most heinous ideas or opinions publicly is protected under the first amendment. We can draw a line when such views trample on someone else’s rights, discriminate against a group or break laws.

This ideological censorship based on some group deeming something “offensive” is happening even in the media. A conservative writer, Daniella Greenbaum, resigned from Business Insider (BI) after being censored. She wrote a piece defending Scarlett Johansson playing a transgender man, arguing that the main challenge of acting is to portray someone other than oneself and that “Johansson's identity off the screen is irrelevant to the identities she plays on the screen.

Her article went through the publication’s editorial review process before it was published, but the moment it met with resistance, BI took it down. They claimed it was suddenly in violation of their editorial standards, which the article had passed earlier. Rather than take it down to placate the mob, BI should have encouraged everyone who disagreed with her to pen a rebuttal.

I call this disturbing trend, one that shuts down various points of view, ideological racism and it has become even more pervasive in the age of social media mobs. I decided to do research to try and understand how, liberals, once open-minded, thick-skinned and valiant defenders of free speech, had suddenly become so sensitive, plaintive and censorship-happy.

Over the last generation, a dangerous idea has started to take hold among students and faculty on college campuses across the country, one that suggests that speech is violence.

We are not talking about verbal threats against individuals, which are illegal and not protected by the first amendment. No, this idea of words inflicting violence refers to speech that is deemed by members of an identity group to be critical of the group, or speech that simply ‘upsets’ people. Basically, saying that if I were to give a speech on a college campus criticising Indians for not wearing deodorant (a fact), it would be considered violence against Indian students.

A few years ago, a group at Columbia University penned an Op-ed in the student newspaper calling on the school to start implementing “trigger” warnings in curricula to alert students about  potentially distressing material, even for classics like Greek mythology or Roman poetry. In 2014, students at the University of California urged the school to make trigger warnings mandatory on all class syllabi, which would require the school to issue advance alerts and allow students to skip those classes.

Recentlya Rutgers University sophomore suggested that alerts should be issued for F. Scott Fitzgerald’s ‘The Great Gatsby’ to say, ‘TW: suicide, domestic abuse and graphic violence and a Columbia student publicly complained about her professor using the word “negro”, even though he said it in a lesson about 1960s America.

Sadly, this anti-intellectual, anti-learning and anti-free speech movement has spread well-beyond classrooms and now extends to blocking all Conservative speakers, and even Liberals who don’t spout the party line, from lecturing on campus, often using the ridiculous argument that words are weapons that can cause physical harm.

Ironically, while students complain about the ‘violence’ of words, they seem to have no issue resorting to physical violence to prevent speakers from setting foot on campuses. A talk by conservative social scientist Charles Murray was violently shut down by students who physically attacked him and in the process injured a Middlebury professor who was with him. At University of California, Berkeley, once a bastion of free speech, a group with bandannas wrapped around their faces, tore down barricades, shot projectiles at police and lit a light stand on fire, causing more than $100,000 worth of damage, and succeeded in cancelling a scheduled talk by Milo Yiannopoulos, a controversial far-right speaker.

Another trend contributing to this growing ideological racism has been the creation of ‘safe spaces’. The original purpose of a ‘safe space’ was narrowly defined and meant as a temporary physical space on campus for marginalised groups, often gay and transgender students, to discuss issues without abuse or public attacks. However, what was meant to be a temporary space is morphing into permanent ones for various aspects of campus life; from segregated study halls and libraries and some advocates have turned their attention to student housing, which they want to turn into safe spaces by segregating student living quarters.

Another factor is the lack of diversity within faculty. In 2016, the Higher Education Research Institute at UCLA that has surveyed undergraduate teaching faculty for the last twenty-five years found that liberals now outnumber conservative professors, five to one. Another 2017 study by Econ Journal Watch found that faculty at the top 40 colleges, in the fields of Economics, History, Journalism/Communications, Law and Psychology were registered Democrat versus Republican by a whopping 11.5 to 1 margin. The New Yorker described this failure among our higher education institutions, now completely dominated by the left, as an unwillingness to engage with conservative thought, an aversion to debate, and a weakened commitment to free speech.

For me the main issue is that these developments defeat the main purpose of higher education, which was to open minds rather than to create conformity. Colleges are meant to challenge our thinking by introducing new ideas and exposing us to a broad spectrum of viewpoints. Instead, it seems education is now focused on creating false realities and safe echo chambers which do not prepare students for the realities of life in the real world.

Colleges are the final rite of passage between the safety and security of home and the unfairness and harshness of life.  Time there is meant to help students grow thicker skins, in part by interacting with people who have different views, backgrounds and life experiences than their own. As our world continues to shrink, having a thicker skin has become more, not less, important.

The point is not to pretend that there are no Holocaust deniers or to tell them never to engage with people with offensive views. Progress requires us to work with all types of people. We need to teach children the facts of history (good, bad and ugly) and equip them with critical thinking skills and thick skins so they can publicly debate and defeat bad ideas with better ones.

How can you change the world for the better, if you refuse to accept its ugly realities first?

Every successful democratic society requires a broad spectrum of views, thoughts and ideas to thrive and succeed. This is the point of diversity, not simply skin colour, but diverse thinking. As a brown person, I would rather someone openly hate the colour of my skin but embrace my thinking, not the other way around. If we try to mould everyone into one way of thinking, then that is the end of innovation and progress in society.

As Mr. Rushdie said, the price of free speech, and a free society, is that ugliness comes with it. If we try to close down speech we define as critical, unkind, hurtful or distasteful, then we walk away from free speech all together – there is no middle ground.

As a society we would be wise to remember that sticks and stones may break bones, but censoring words and thoughts destroys democracy.