Pluralistic: 11 May 2020

Today's links

80% of Britons want happiness, not growth (permalink)

A YouGov poll found 80% of Britons "would prefer the government to prioritise health and wellbeing over economic growth during the crisis, and 6 in 10 would still want the government to pursue health and wellbeing ahead of growth after the pandemic"

GDP is a terrific example of Goodhart's Law: "When a measure becomes a target, it ceases to be a good measure."

Or, as Alice Taylor puts it, "Any number you put on the wall will go up."

There's a trivial sense in which economic growth correlates to broad prosperity, but GDP is a uniquely jukeable stat.

First, "economic activity" is not synonymous with "prosperity-producing activity." Torching a home and paying a crew to clear the wreckage is "activity."

Consider that in the LIBOR-rigging scandal, traders at rival firms were able to juke their stats by colluding so that one would sell millions of dollars of paper to the other, who would immediately sell it back.

But even where GDP measures useful activity, it's a mistake to assume that the benefits increase general prosperity. As we've seen, the benefits of growth are often hoarded by rich people while everyone else's wealth stagnates or decreases.

An emphasis on economic growth paves the way for the rich getting richer, often through destructive tactics like the Private Equity trick of buying a company, loading it with debt, and running it into the ground.

Neoliberal and centrist governments have long paid lip-service to the idea of measuring "General National Happiness" or other metrics that try to put prosperity and wellbeing on equal footing with raw economic measures. This never transcends the cosmetic.

That's because the finance sector (obviously) has a lot of money, and they spread it around to ensure that any measures that might nerf enrichment for the rich get neutered before they goes into effect.

But that might change.

As unemployment hits 25-35%, governments will have two choices:

  1. Do nothing, face civil collapse. States with protracted massive unemployment fail. Not as in "we failed to put people to work" but as in "failed state."

  2. Create national jobs schemes that will result in 25-35% of workers becoming new government employees (in addition to existing public employment).

We're in real danger of 1 happening, so maybe go and source a pole now so you can go digging through rubble for canned goods.

But assuming we're not all drinking our own urine and fighting in the Thunderdome in a year…

Option 2 means that something like half the workers in the country will see their destiny totally decoupled from finance benchmarks.

Whether the line goes up or down will have no impact at all on their take-home pay or benefits or savings or pension.

This great decoupling might finally weaken looter capitalism to the point where we can start treating its perpetrators as sociopathic wreckers.

Rather than celebrating them as heroes.

Shanghai Disneyland re-opens (permalink)

Shanghai Disneyland re-opened today with a suite of post-pandemic measures that are being watched as a bellwether for other public space reopenings. I've spent a lot of time thinking about themeparks and their future, so I find this very interesting.

Shanghai is a weird park to start with. Sure, reopening in China (versus somewhere else) makes sense, given the progress that's been made in containing the pandemic there, and the merging of the invasive surveillance state with public health surveillance.

But of all the Disney parks in the world, Shanghai is the one that relies the least on social cohesion and rule-following. It's basically built on the assumption that everyone who visits will cheat the system.

For example, its queue stanchions are chest-height and solid to the ground to prevent queue-jumping (I have no idea how they square that with fire safety). The entrance turnstiles don't have their own queues (which invites scrumming), instead there's a maze of riot-fencing.

It's one person wide (to prevent queue-barging) and a cast member directs the front to a specific turnstile as it becomes available.

There are limits to how many turkey legs you can buy because people were buying several and walking back down the line, selling them.

When you use a Fastpass, your face is matched to a database at the queue entrance and then once (or twice) more before you board.

It's a contrast with other regional parks (HK, Tokyo), where there's a high degree of trust embodied in the queueing architecture and policies.

Shanghai also has the longest lines I've ever seen at a Disney Park, and several of them are lines for GA shows with no seating, some of them indoors. They have strict limits on the number of Fastpasses they give out and all Fastpasses are gone shortly after the park opens.

So there will definitely be some serious challenges to re-opening. First, there's the queues. Switchback queues are space-efficient and psychologically inviting (compared to a long, snaking queue), and they're compact enough to encase in an air-conditioned building.

They're also impossible to maintain distancing in. It looks like they've modified some switchbacks with bulges that separate people in adjacent turns, but this makes the queues less compact, and still has waiting spots where you'll be too close.

It's gonna be 31'C tomorrow in Shanghai, and 70% humidity. Pushing queues out of the show buildings and into the direct sun is gonna be brutal.

To make things harder, they're reducing capacity on the rides to create distancing, meaning that queues will move more slowly.

Then there's the technical matter of whether distancing on an attraction is meaningful or just pandemic theater: the research is inconclusive, but being next to someone in a show for 45 mins (or downwind of the HVAC direction) sounds risky.

As does being in someone's slipstream on a fast-moving ride for 5-8 minutes.

They're removing every second restaurant table from service:

But again, without knowing about predominant HVAC currents, it's hard to say whether this will do much. We know that sitting a couple tables down(wind) from an infectious person is a risk:

Some of the countermeasures feel like theater, such as the multiple temperature scans. It's true that these will catch cheaters who go even if they know they're sick, but the hard problem of coronavirus isn't cheaters, its asymptomatic carriers.

"At least 44% of all infections–and the majority of community-acquired transmissions–occur from people without any symptoms. You can be shedding the virus into the environment for up to 5 days before symptoms begin."

Whenever I hear someone talking about temperature checks, I wonder about their calculus. Is it:

  • Delivers some benefit, doesn't hurt, why not?
  • Mostly useless, but makes people feel safe, why not?
  • My world is full of cheaters who'll selfishly risk others?

I don't see anything wrong with temp checks but I worry that social cohesion is our only way forward (asymptomatic people who know they were exposed but refuse to isolate are a much bigger risk than people with fevers who do so).

I also don't want to trust my safety to anyone who engages in symbolic gestures "to make me feel better" even if they don't make sense. Those people distort our discourse about safety and security and elevate nonsense to the same plane as evidence.

Given Shanghai Disney's emphasis on cheater-prevention, I think the temp scans are about catching cheaters, but if management is assuming that people will cheat, then temp checks won't catch the majority, who'll be asymptomatic.

IOW: if you think large numbers of cheaters will break the rules, then you can't open safely until the rules aren't needed (that is, until a vaccine is on hand).

A red flag for me: it's not clear how Disney will operate profitably under these constraints.

Independent analysts say the break-even point for a themepark under normal conditions is 50% of capacity (probably higher if you're paying additional staff to clean surfaces and manage compliance).

The news reports don't say what the new capacity of Shanghai Disney is, but it looks low. One way to fix this is to raise prices. At Disneyland California, the prices have skyrocketed without a drop in attendance, suggesting attendees are price-insensitive.

(Maybe not so much after their fortunes were destroyed by coronavirus, ofc).

But high prices are correlated with more pathological customer behavior, from arriving at rope-drop and staying until closing to "get their money's worth" (no one ever enjoyed a 16h Disney day).

They're also correlated with customers demanding – or cheating – to get a turn on every ride and show (to get their money's worth).

I'm worried that charging more will reduce compliance.

I really wanna go back to Disneyland! I hope this works! But I'm concerned that it's premature and will set things back.

The bailout is working (for Wall Street) (permalink)

The S&P; 500 rose 30% since March. Private equity giants' shares are soaring: Apollo's up 80%; Blackstone, 50%. Jpmorgan is bullish, on the basis that Wall Street can expect unlimited bailouts.

20.5M Americans lost their jobs in April.

Bailing out Wall Street definitely works for asset holders. Workers are expected to benefit from a trickle-down. No trickle-down is in sight. Instead, workers are being coerced into risking their lives to re-open bailed-out businesses.

The Fed is buying up billions in junk bonds, and the junk bond and leveraged loans are rallying. The largest owners of these assets are private equity funds, whose investors are the richest people in America.

Food bank lines in America now routinely stretch for more than a mile.

Image: David Parkins/The Economist

(Image David Parkins/The Economist)

NLRB nukes Hearst's union-busting (permalink)

When Heart Magazine writers formed a union, the publisher struck back with a suite of risible and illegal tactics to prevent it. Friday, the NLRB ruled against Hearst on every count.

They ruled that the employees Hearst tried to classify as management (which disqualifies them from joining the union) were not management.

They ruled that the Hearst International Employees Association was not a union (it's an illegal "company union").

And they ruled that Hearst could not split its workforce into six weaker bargaining units on the basis that they were separate businesses. They lost this last one in part because they'd put workers from all six divisions into their fake company union.

The company union is such a scam: "[HIEA] is registered to the same address as Hearst Communications… its contract didn’t describe the unit it allegedly represents, or explain how it classifies the employees it’s meant to cover."

"The HIEA also didn’t respond to a letter from the NLRB which explained the steps it would have to take in order to properly intervene in the union election, and it didn’t show up to any hearings. This is again very strange, because unions usually object to losing members." -Sarah Jones, New York Magazine

Podcast of "Rules for Writers" (permalink)

This week on my podcast, I take a break from my reading of Someone Comes to Town Someone Leaves Town to read my new Locus column, "Rules for Writers" – the tale of how I had a very belated epiphany about writing advice while teaching on last year's Writing Excuses cruise.

I'd always understood "rules for writers" as things you shouldn't do, but after decades of teaching them and employing them, I realized that "rules" are in fact "things that are hard to do wrong" and thus "things that are likely the problem with a story that doesn't work."

You can read the column here:

Here's the podcast episode:

And here's the MP3:

And here's my podcast feed:

(You can catch up on my reading of "Someone Comes to Town, Someone Leaves Town" here:)

Facebook's "supreme court" (permalink)

Facebook has a new "supreme court" of 20 esteemed outsiders who will make binding judgments on some content removal decisions. @sivavaid explains why this kind of self-regulation is likely to fail.

Siva's reasons are all good ones: a handful of hard individual content removal decisions won't solve the wider problems of Facebook discourse; the board is heavily skewed to US experts, the scope excludes some of FB's most toxic forums.

I have another reason, which is that I don't trust Facebook, because they always lie, and any principled position they have advanced in the past turned out either to be a deception, or was jettisoned the instant it interfered with the company's ambitions.

I mean, this is some scorpion-and-frog stuff: why would we expect FB to behave any differently now?

It's like when Google's Sidewalk Labs came to Toronto and hired a privacy board, then nerfed or ignored their recommendations, until they resigned

And then brought on an indigenous advisory board and nerfed or ignored all of its recommendations:

and then went around trumpeting that its plan had been developed in concert with leading privacy experts and indigenous elders.

Which brings me to a concern about this privacy board that Siva didn't raise: that these are, by and large, really excellent people who have important work to do, and I believe they are going to be used as window-dressing for a company that shouldn't exist.

The problem of building a content moderation scheme that takes account of 2.5B peoples' boundaries on reasonableness and fairness across 150+ countries' cultural and legal norms isn't soluble.

What's more, Facebook attained that incredible scale by cheating: buying nascent competitors to capture or kill them, merging with major competitors to avoid competition, cornering vertical monopolies, using predatory pricing and lock-in, etc.

The right answer to the dysfunction of a 2.5B user Facebook is to break it up – force it to divest of the companies it bought, subject future mergers to heavy scrutiny, etc. Adding a window-dressing layer of experts won't make the impossible possible.

I'd rather see the 20 stipends, junkets and reimbursements go to 20 homeless people who can't afford to live in the Bay Area any more in part because of FB's lavish spending to kill affordable housing laws.

They wouldn't get anything done, either, of course.

But the money would mean a lot to them, and the experts whose time is going to be taken up with board work for FB would be freed up to continue their effective work on fairness, moderation, harassment, etc.

Anthony Quintano (modified)

(Image: Anthony Quintano, CC BY, modified)

This day in history (permalink)

#15yrsago Journal of Ride Theory amazing zine is now an amazing book

#10yrsago U Texas/Austin's ACTLab to close

#10yrsago Literary sports jerseys

#10yrsago Open source hardware business booms: 13 companies making $1M+

#10yrsago FOR THE WIN launches today

#10yrsago Crucimickey in an upscale Beijing mall

#5yrsago Copyfighting, jailbreaking legend Ed Felten is the White House's new deputy CTO

#5yrsago Librarians: privacy's champions

#1yrago Facebook's "celebration" and "memories" algorithms are auto-generating best-of-terror-recruiting pages for extremist groups

#1yrago Beto O'Rourke just hired a "senior advisor" who used to lobby for Keystone XL, Seaworld and private prisons

#1yrago Bipartisan groups call on Congress to reinstate the Office of Technology Assessment, which Gingrich killed in 1995

#1yrago British jury ignores judge and frees self-represented climate activists based on the "necessity defense"

Colophon (permalink)

Today's top sources: Naked Capitalism (, Late Stage Capitalism (

Currently writing: My next novel, "The Lost Cause," a post-GND novel about truth and reconciliation. Friday's progress: 688 words (13685 total).

Currently reading: Facebook: The Inside Story, by Steven Levy.

Latest podcast: Rules for Writers (

Upcoming books: "Poesy the Monster Slayer" (Jul 2020), a picture book about monsters, bedtime, gender, and kicking ass. Pre-order here:

"Attack Surface": The third Little Brother book, Oct 20, 2020.

"Little Brother/Homeland": A reissue omnibus edition with a new introduction by Edward Snowden:

This work licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 license. That means you can use it any way you like, including commerically, provided that you attribute it to me, Cory Doctorow, and include a link to

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When life gives you SARS, you make sarsaparilla -Joey "Accordion Guy" DeVilla

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