It's alright, Ma, change your lane
By Scott Sumner
As I get older, I encounter more and more new phrases that annoy me:
1. Universities need “safe spaces”? I’d say universities are safe spaces.
2. Read the room? No, the room needs to read me.
3. Cultural appropriation? By all means! Life would hardly be worth living without cultural appropriation.
4. Stay in your lane? Why would I want to do that?
Here’s The Economist, in a very revealing article on Chinese authoritarianism:
The initial affront that led to the tech crackdown was Jack Ma’s comparison, at a public event in October, of Chinese state lenders to pawn shops. A month later China’s stockmarket regulator suspended the $37bn initial public offering of Ant, which would have been the world’s biggest ever, in Hong Kong and Shanghai. Since then the authorities have forced Ant to become a financial holding company, undermining its lucrative, asset-light business model of matching consumers with lenders.
The message, says a broker in Hong Kong, is that tech leaders should “stay in their own lane, focus on their core businesses and avoid commenting on politics or economics”. It has been heard loud and clear. Pony Ma’s parliamentary performance, in which he called for strict regulation of areas that he has invested in, from e-commerce to ride-hailing, has been seen as a signal to the Chinese government that he will not get out of line.
Jack Ma is the founder of Alibaba, one of China’s two biggest tech giants. Pony Ma is the CEO of Tencent, the other big Chinese tech giant. The Economist says that Pony Ma was supposed to stay in his lane. What does that mean? They suggest it means that he should “avoid commenting on politics or economics”. So what does Pony Ma do? He goes out and starts advocating more government regulation in his own industry, which is pretty much the textbook definition of commenting on politics and economics. And the Economist suggests that as a result he was seen as being a good soldier, willing to stay in his lane.
Almost no one honestly wants other people to stay in their lane. They want other people to agree with them on policy issues. As long as you do that, no one will accuse you of not staying in your lane. On the other hand, if you disagree with someone’s views, they’ll tell you to stop commenting on things you know nothing about.
Here’s Bob Dylan:
An’ though the rules of the road have been lodged
It’s only people’s games that you got to dodge
And it’s alright, Ma, I can make it