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Tuesday, Sep 18, 2018
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The Reading File: Excerpts from interesting articles

Billionairesí show of giving

In LongReads, Jacob Silverman writes that "It is an American tradition for CEOs to stockpile their wealth, avoid taxes, then in their later years, participate in the theater of giving." Read "Will Jeff Bezos Make It Scale?" in full at http://bit.ly/2tOvdyo. Hereís an excerpt.

While Amazon has since come to agreements with many states about paying sales tax, Bezos has long viewed it as an unnecessary tariff. "Weíre not actually benefiting from any services that those states provide locally," he said during a 2008 shareholders meeting, "so itís not fair that we should be obligated to be their tax collection agent." Of course, Amazonís fulfillment centers ó the companyís lifeblood and circulatory network ó depend on electricity, roads, and other essential services underwritten by sales tax. And its competitors, from Walmart to local small businesses, both collect sales tax and rely on the services it helps furnish.

But all this, perhaps, is to be expected. A billionaireís relationship with taxes is about that of a vampireís with daylight. And now that Bezos has won the game of life, he has an opportunity to dispense with his fortune in ritualistic fashion, donating it to a range of civically minded nonprofits ó tax-free, naturally ó and earning the plaudits of an admiring public. Like fellow billionaires Zuckerberg, Gates, and Buffett, it is time for Bezos to prostrate himself and claim that years of cutthroat capitalism were all leading to this moment where he might shovel his billions into the coal furnace of philanthropy and emerge cleansed. Or at least, thatís the comforting narrative arc thatís been devised for todayís billionaires, particularly in tech.

In truth, Jeff Bezos has shown little interest in putting his billions toward the common good. (If he had, perhaps paying taxes would have been a good starting point.) He has repeatedly expressed an intention to help save the world but claims, with a tech mogulís typical messianism, that he will do it through building great companies.

Give war a chance

In Foreign Policy, Micah Zenko worries that "the Pentagon is a bit too excited about the return of great-power rivalry." Read "Americaís Military Is Nostalgic for World Wars" in full at http://bit.ly/2Dok3jf. Hereís an excerpt.

There is also a growing consensus that other countries play great-power politics while the United States merely participates in a "rules-based international order." In January, Secretary of Defense James Mattis actually stated "We donít invade other countries," noting the Russian-sponsored intervention in Ukraine, but omitting the three regime-change invasions in a 12-year period led by the United States and the present occupation of portions of Syria without the consent of the Syrian government. He also claimed that "we settle things by international rule of law."

Never mind that virtually no country believes Americaís airstrikes in non-battlefield settings comply with international law. The reality is that Defense Department plans for, and reserves the right to, use of force anywhere in the world ó including against Chinese and Russian critical infrastructure ó to attempt to defeat any perceived threat. As the great pacifist A.J. Muste observed in 1949: "No Big Power in all history ever thought of itself as an aggressor. That is still true today." And true today in Moscow, Beijing, and Washington.

Perhaps most troubling about Pentagon officialsí recent comments on great-power competition is that they seem to want ó perhaps even need ó China and Russia to be their competitors. As one anonymous senior Defense Department official told Nicholas Schmidle, "Real men fight real wars. We like the clarity of big wars."

The why of psychopaths

In the Atlantic, Ed Yong looks at "How Psychopaths See the World," noting that "itís not that they canít consider other peopleís perspectives. Itís that they donít do so automatically." Read his essay in full at http://theatln.tc/2DoenGd. Hereís an excerpt.

(Of her testing of inmates, the researcher says her) results show that psychopaths (or male ones, at least) do not automatically take the perspective of other people. What is involuntary to most people is a deliberate choice to them, something they can actively switch on if it helps them to achieve their goals, and ignore in other situations. That helps to explain why they behave so callously, cruelly, and even violently.

Internet anarchy

In the New Yorker, Andrew Marantz wonders "how do we fix life online without limiting free speech?" Read "Reddit And The Struggle To Detoxify The Internet" in full at http://bit.ly/2DoKxRT. Hereís an excerpt.

The only way to understand the Internet, at least at first, was by metaphor. "Web" and "page" and "superhighway" are metaphors. So are "link," "viral," "post," and "stream." Last year, the Supreme Court heard a case about whether it was constitutional to bar registered sex offenders from using social media. In order to answer that question, the Justices had to ask another question: What is social media? In 60 minutes of oral argument, Facebook was compared to a park, a playground, an airport terminal, a polling place, and a town square.

It might be most helpful to compare a social network to a party. The party starts out small, with the hosts and a few of their friends. Then word gets out and strangers show up. People take cues from the environment. Mimosas in a sun-dappled atrium suggest one kind of mood; grain alcohol in a moldy basement suggests another. Sometimes, a pattern emerges on its own. Pinterest, a simple photo-sharing site founded by three men, happened to catch on among women aspiring to an urbane life style, and today the front page is often a collage of merino scarves and expensive glassware. In other cases, the gatekeeping seems more premeditated. If youíre 14, Snapchatís user interface is intuitive; if youíre 22, itís intriguing; if youíre over 35, itís impenetrable. This encourages old people to self-deport.

(Redditís CEO Steve) Huffman and his college roommate, Alexis Ohanian, founded Reddit a few weeks after graduating from the University of Virginia, in 2005. The first people to show up were, like the co-founders, the kind of strong-headed young men who got excited about computer programming, video games, and edgy, self-referential humor. Redditís system was purely democratic, which is to say anarchic.

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