A Reading List for Troubled Times

Whether we hit a recession in 2019 or election season forces the issue of economic inequality, you’ll want these heavy hitters on your nightstand

Photo by Daniel Frank on Unsplash

2018 was the year I left San Francisco and moved back home to Los Angeles. I left the city Kara Swisher amusingly calls “assisted living for millennials,” where meals magically arrive on doorsteps, laundry is rarely washed by the wearer, and it only takes one TaskRabbit to screw in a lightbulb.

I left San Francisco for personal reasons. But once I left the city of gadgets and hope and hype, the distrust of big tech that was seeping into the zeitgeist became more clear to me.

There were are a few obvious reasons for the distrust: Theranos, Facebook and Cambridge Analytica, to name a few.

Others were less clear. Should Uber, Lyft, Amazon, and others capitalizing on the gig economy be required to treat their distributed and ad-hoc workforce as full time workers with benefits, versus independent contractors? Is the great bargain of the Internet age — trading personal data and privacy for free services — actually unethical? Is big tech simply too big?

These are thorny questions with political ramifications for labor laws, privacy and security, and antitrust regulation. Amidst these questions, there’s also the elephant in the room of widening income inequality, which some attribute in part to the rise in large “superstar firms” (a la big tech).

I’ve been looking for answers and have yet to find the crystal ball. But I have found a few powerful perspectives in books that challenged my beliefs and forced me to think differently.

If you have other suggestions, add a comment or tweet at me.

Challenging the view that you can “do good by doing well”

Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World by Anand Giridharadas

Until recently, working for a startup was almost perceived as a form of social activism. Join a mission driven company, change the world, and if you’re lucky, make bank.

This ethos expanded beyond tech, supporting a general distrust of government interventions. The line of thinking was such: Why trust the government, this bloated bureaucratic beast, to solve the hardest problems facing society? Instead, let’s put market-based solutions at the forefront. And let’s put those who have been most successful in the markets in charge of spearheading those solutions.

Former New York Times columnist Giridharadas takes aim at how efforts to “change the world” by those at the top actually preserve the status quo, despite their best intentions. It’s a no punches pulled argument against the privatization of philanthropy and social change. While I didn’t agree with all his points (and at times found his tone borderline offensive), the crux of his argument holds: private solutions for public problems are rarely enough.

tl;dr: NPR interview with Giridharadas

Challenging the view that “bigger is better”

The Curse of Bigness: Antitrust in the New Gilded Age by Tim Wu

The first few chapters of Columbia professor Tim Wu’s newest book outlines the history of the Guilded Age of the early 1900s and subsequent antitrust laws. Eerily, though, if you swap out some names and change a few outfits, it could be a synopsis of modern times.

For Wu, who is best known for his theories on net neutrality, corporate consolidation across industries is not a siloed legal concern. Instead, he warns, without intervention against rising bigness, we risk repeating the mistakes of the early 20th century. Wu writes:

“With an economy that looks like a knock-off of the Guilded Age, is it any surprise that our politics have come to match it? The late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were marked by the brutal treatment of workers, the destruction of small-and medium-sized businesses, and broad economic suffering. That led to widespread popular anger and demands for something new and different. Strong leaders promised a return to greatness, bread for the workers, and a new order.”

It’s a quick 150 pages, and packs a punch.

tl;dr: Wu in Wired

Challenging the view that “free markets make you free”

Private Government: How Employers Rule Our Lives (and Why We Don’t Talk about It) by Elizabeth Anderson

“We are told that our choice is between free markets and state control, when most adults live their working lives under a third thing entirely: private government.”

So argues philosopher Elizabeth Anderson in Private Government, which is based on the prestigious Tanner Lectures delivered at Princeton University’s Center for Human Values.

The premise behind the lectures is that when businesses make and enforce rules that impact individual freedoms—including what employees say and wear, when they go to the bathroom, how they interact out of the office—they are essentially acting as private governments. While economists might argue people can just quit, employees (especially low wage employees) rarely have that option. The lack of dialogue around this power structure is equally problematic, according to Anderson, a belief I share.

Personally, I do think it is within a company’s purview to create boundaries around social norms to create culture, drive performance, and ensure a consistent experience for customers. But this can’t be at the expense of human rights (e.g., pregnant women being told they have to carry heavy loads in factories despite miscarriage risks).

tl;dr: a profile of Anderson in this week’s New Yorker or the book review from 2017.