Pluralistic: 24 Jul 2020

Today's links

Facebook's morale problem (permalink)

An important Buzzfeed piece by Ryan Mac and Craig Silverman uses leaks and insider accounts from Facebook to paint a picture of a company where morale is in freefall, as techies are forced to confront their role in a sociopathic institution.

As America descends into authoritarian violence and faces an election which a criminal strongman has signalled his intention to steal (or discredit), these high-waged, intelligent workers are coming to realize that the firm will happily trade civilization for its own profits.

And so you get the spectacle of thousands of workers walking off the job, or joining internal dissent groups, or resigning and posting long (leaked) videos that quote liberally from Hannah Arendt to explain why they can no longer stomach working at the company.

Facebook management cloaks its abetting of fascism in the language of "free speech" and "consistency" but both of these principles are routinely jettisoned when they are inconvenient.

FB stumbled into its role of fascist enabler, but, like the business people who enabled the rise of midcentury fascist strongmen, Facebook may think of fascists as regrettable thugs, but it's 100% behind their commitments to low tax, low regulation, and lax labor standards.

We often forget that fascism isn't mere authoritarianism: it is the merger of authoritarianism with business, a form of state capitalism in which business and the government become interpenetrated with one another.

And since reality has a well-known left-wing bias, Facebook has often angered the fascists it hopes to please by reflecting reality. This is a high-risk business, because fascists are committed to nothing except themselves: Trump loves FB when it helps Trump.

When it gets in his way, he will do anything he can to destroy it. Which is why FB's real policy decisions aren't being made by its integrity team. They are routinely overridden by Joel Kaplan, an ex-Bush advisor now serving as VP of policy.

Kaplan – a rape apologist who sat behind Kavanaugh to lend support during the confirmation – is the firm's direct line to would-be fascists in the GOP. He's behind the company's rule-rigging to enable Trump to get away with saying whatever he wants.

He's the one who suppressed the company's own internal research that showed they were "sowing division" by allowing disinformation campaigns to spread.

Every horror of technological "progress" has been regretted by its inventors. The problem is that the Oppenheimers typically wait until AFTER the mushroom cloud is rising on the horizon to express their doubts.

We need earlybird Oppenheimers! Even during the pandemic, Facebookers can walk into amazing, high-paid work at a variety of firms. They don't even need to choose between their families' groceries and their conscience.

The FB employees who are blazing their way out the door with 20-minute video denunciations could be the first wave of a mass exodus. As powerful as FB is, it depends utterly on a scarce, irreplaceable pool of technical and engineering talent.

Shandes like Kaplan are absolutely replaceable. The engineers who down tools and turn in their badges? Not so much.

My HOPE keynote this Sat (permalink)

This Saturday at 1PM Pacific, I'm giving a keynote address to HOPE 2020: the 13th Hackers on Planet Earth con, put on by 2600 magazine. This is the first all-virtual year, and I am so there for it.

My talk is called "We Used to Have Cake, Now We've Barely Got Icing." It's a totally brand new talk, the first time I've ever tried to publicly articulate this big, unifying thesis I've been developing about monopoly, totalitarianism, tech and IP.

Normally, talks evolve: I have an idea and I talk about it, revise it, talk about it again, revise it, etc. But every so often, there's a kind of bolt-from-the-blue that makes me rethink my whole approach. That's what happened about a month ago.

I'm rarely nervous before a talk, but I'm nervous about this one. I DO NOT want to screw this up. It's an important idea for me and I am not at all confident I can get it across. But it's important enough that I am going to try my damndest.

Here's the description I wrote for the program book:

When free software licensing was born, software copyrights were essentially nonexistent, software patents didn't exist at all, terms of service weren't enforceable and there was no anti-circumvention law.

In other words, you were legally permitted to clone or interoperate with any digital product. Today, we think of free software as a way for a company to say, "We probably won't sue you if you write code that can interoperate with ours."

But when free software started, it was more like, "I know I've got the absolute legal right to reverse engineer all your code and make a competing product, but that's such tedious work. Please, make it easy for me by giving me your source code."

Back then, free software was icing on the cake. Then they stole the cake and left us hoping for a little icing every now and then.

I hope you can make it! And I hope if you do, I don't screw it up!

Changes coming to UK's feudal "leaseholds" (permalink)

When I first moved to the UK, I noticed all my friends who lived in flats were always complaining about "freeholders." The first few times I asked to have this explained, I assumed that I'd just misunderstood, because there was no way the system was that fucking terrible.

Nope. It's that terrible.

In the US and much of the rest of the world, if you own an apartment in a multi-unit dwelling, the whole building is structured as a condo, or maybe a co-op. You elect a board and they decide how to maintain the building and charge fees accordingly.

But not in the UK. There, the building is owned by a "freeholder" and when you buy a flat, you buy a "lease." The leases are typically very long – 99 or even 999 (!) years – and at that timescale, it's pretty similar to actually buying a place, but there are real differences.

The freeholder is not elected. They get to charge you "ground rent" – a sum defined in the lease – and they unilaterally decide how to maintain your building and what you will pay for it.

Periodically, you have to renew your lease (which is expensive!) and if you forget to or can't afford to, you lose your home. Lease renewals have some statutory controls, but they're weak.

And since lease renewals are the kind of thing you might do every 25 years, it's certainly possible that it will slip your mind. "OK Google. Remind me in 25 years to renew my lease."

Eventually, I became a leaseholder, and worse, I was a leaseholder in a building that was 75% commercial, which meant that we "tenants" were not able to force our freeholder to sell to us.

Our freeholder was – and is – a fucking bastard. This was true when our freeholder was a random plute, a literal rentier in desperate need of a guillotine.

But it remained true when our freehold was bought by a charitable social housing association as a revenue generator for their subsidized housing blocks. If anything, they were even bigger bastards.

Of course, you don't actually ever deal with your freeholder. Like every shitty feudal grift, the freeholder is insulated from the tenants by several layers of indirection.

Even freeholder's agents – shiny-suited scumbags who ignored, abused or sidelined us – hired subcontractors to deal with us. These were giant companies like Tuckerman who did such shoddy work that it would have been hilarious if it wasn't terrible.

Just for an example: they took 10 months to replace the light in the stairwell leading up to the flats.

But as bad as that was, the fees were the most brutal and farcical element.

They're not merely sky high and terrible value for money – they sometimes came with NASTY surprises.

Like the morning that a builder knocked on our door and told us that the freeholder had unilaterally decided to "upgrade" the block with new doors, windows and cladding.

That very (winter) morning – with no notice – the builders REMOVED ALL OUR WINDOWS AND DOORS and left us without for several days.

When it was done, we had a bill for £10k for our share of the "upgrades," and if we didn't pay it straightaway, we would lose our home.

The thing about the leaseholder/freeholder split is that it preys on affluent people like us (the rental market preys on poor people in much more ghastly ways, of course). Preying on affluent people, even in the plutelicking Kingdom of Great Britain, is a fraught business.

That's why, this week, the Law Commission published a landmark report that affects every one of the UK's 4.3m leaseholders, laying out dramatic reforms to the system:

The Commission had already made improvements to the "enfranchisement" process for buying out or extending your lease, reducing the cost of either by about a third (but they didn't create a simple formula to give leaseholders badly needy surety).

The new report recommends automatic, free extensions of leases to 990 years, with no ground rent and makes "dramatic" reductions to the cost of buying out your lease altogether.

It creates a simple path to taking over the maintenance of your building, cutting out the fucking Tuckermans of the world.

It mandates all new housing be "commonhold" (more like condos or co-ops), which is bad news for greedy developers, 90% of whose flats are leaseholds.

The Commission's report isn't law, it's recommendation that the housing minister, the despicable Tory Luke Hall must now act upon. He yawned to The Guardian, "We will carefully consider the recommendations, which are a significant milestone."

Meanwhile, Hall is busily giving the guillotinable landlords of Britain some handsome gifts, like the right to add two storeys to any block without planning permission, a £20b to freeholders for doing nothing.

These freeholders will be able to use the phantom two stories to extract higher sums from leaseholders seeking to buy out their freeholds.

Konstantine Anthony for Burbank City Council (permalink)

You may have noticed that there are some elections coming up here in the USA – perhaps you've seen the odd bit of news coverage.

Well, all politics are local, so let me bend your ear a moment about the city council race here in my adopted hometown of Burbank.

Burbank is a charming, well-kept, heavily unionized small city in LA County of 100,000 people. It's a company town: from my home I can walk to the studio gates of Disney, Warner or Universal. I can also walk to about 20 union halls for their skilled trades and talent.

Burbank's got fantastic public amenities: well-kept roads, a responsive sanitation department, amazing libraries, a huge, gorgeous outdoor heated year-round Olympic pool, some of the best schools in LA County, and more.

But it's also got a mean streak. There's a massive shortage of affordable housing, the result of a combination of anti-highrise NIMBYism and rampant property speculation.

It's the only city in the region that still allows no-fault evictions – so in the runup to January's statewide rent-control bill, landlords turfed out waves of Burbank families, retirees and working people.

Our schools are under serious threat, thanks largely to this asshole, who worked with a predatory lawfirm that serially destroyed small cities' operating capital by courting sociopaths who'd wade through an ocean of blood to save $0.05 in taxes.

Worse still, our city failed to pass a VERY modest parcel-tax increase to make up the shortfall, losing by less than one percent (they need a supermajority of 65% to pass, they got 64.12%).

Burbankers – like everyone else in the region – have been completely reliant on internet access during the crisis. Burbank actually owns a 100GB/s fiber loop financed at public expense, but we Burbankers cannot use the fiber we bought.

The city's franchise agreement with Charter – one of the worst ISPs, whose CEO took home the 4th-highest compensation in the nation last year even as his techs were denied PPE and danger pay – forbids it. We have to buy slow, overpriced internet from this cable monopolist.

We need new councillors, ones who will make a difference. Konstantine Anthony is a Democratic Socialist candidate who ran a strong – but ultimately unsuccessful – campaign in 2018, and he's running again. I endorse him and donated to both campaigns.

Anthony ran the anti-eviction campaign last December, and has laid out a program that shows real vision and leadership for our city:

Anthony is a person with a disability, a single father caring for a son who also has a disability. He's an Uber driver and a community organizer. He understands the lives of working people here in Burbank.

Tomorrow, the local DSA will debate whether to officially endorse his campaign (he's already got the Sunrise Movement endorsement):

His campaign officially kicks off on Sunday at noon PST:

Private equity doesn't create value, it destroys it (permalink)

Private equity is pretty weird. Not only do they use some incredibly baroque tactics to loot and destroy productive businesses (while getting remarkably, stonkingly wealthy), but they claim that doing this is "adding value."

Just look at this awesome value-creation!

They killed Hertz!

And AMC!

They stole hundreds of millions from the PPP bailouts for "small businesses":

They're gunning for your pension:

They're SO BAD at pensions that the Republican AG of KENTUCKY is suing the two biggest PE funds in the world, along with their CEOs, personlly:

An excellent and ghastly microcosm of PE misconduct and crime is they way that PE has destroyed the nation's healthcare system, especially its emergency rooms, which are a thing we could sure use right now:

Writing for Newsweek, Oren Cass makes a detailed, easy-to-follow case for PE as a system that "captures value" rather than creating it.

When PE buys a company and loads it up with debt, fires employees, cuts wages and squeezes suppliers, keeping prices stable, no "value" has been created. All that's happened is that value was transfered from productive workers and productive suppliers to unproductive looters.

"Resources that previously flowed to local businesses and families were rerouted to private equity partners and their lawyers and bankers in New York."

That's the best case! Most PE money comes from "financial engineering," litigation, lobbying, price-hikes, or "outright looting of pensions."

The reason all this matters is because the normal argument in favor of PE is that markets reward value creation with returns. So if you're rich, you did something good.

PE is a way to get rich by destroying value. By doing bad things.

Cass cites scholarship to support his claims. For example, this report showing that, following PE acquisitions, we see a "sharp increase in debt, "revenue growth slowed" and "[capital expenditure] spending as a percentage of sales declined."

PE's business model is: "take control of businesses to increase debt and redirect spending from capital expenditures and other forms of investment toward paying down that debt. As a result, or in tandem, the growth of the business slows."

An Oxford researcher found that "This wealth transfer from several hundred million pension scheme members to a few thousand people working in private equity might be one of the largest in the history of modern finance."

All this crowded out investment in productive businesses: "Net private domestic investment fell from nearly 1/10 of US GDP in the mid-1980s, to less than half of that by 2018. As a percent of corporate profits, it declined from nearly 100% in the 1980s to less than 40%."

Mass market book sales surge (permalink)

If you're into books, you might know that some books are called "trade paperbacks" and others are called "mass market paperbacks."

These distinctions have their origins in the creation of the "mass market" for books – when enterprising salespeople like Tom Doherty and Ian Ballantine figured out how to sell books outside of bookstores.

They pioneered a new "trim size" for paperbacks that could fit into "spinner racks" at grocery stores and pharmacies. This was a revolution in publishing. Prior to the mass market, only people who chose to go into bookstores were exposed to books.

You can see how this is a self-limiting move: bookstores are great if you love books, but how do you fall in love with books if you never go into a bookstore?

Across America hundreds of distributors sprung up to serve local stores.

Their unionized teamsters may not have had literature degrees, but they did get bonuses if the books they stocked in the racks' pockets sold, and they had to haul away unsold inventory.

Small routes served by lifers who got to know the local literary tastes led to an explosion of different kinds of literature that was practically hand-sold to readers via these distributors' truck drivers.

But after Reagan dismantled antitrust law, there were waves of grocery and pharmacy consolidation, leading to massive national chains like Walmart, Costco, K-Mart, CVS, Walgreens, etc.

These companies weren't willing to open 400 accounts with 400 distributors. They demanded – and got – a matching consolidation in distributorship, until there were only about 3 national distributors doing the work that hundreds had done before.

Centralized buyers for the chains led to an extinction-level event for the mass-market marketplace, replacing thousands of paperbacks sold nationwide at a time with mere dozens. Good-selling writers were wiped out, and their publishers started to merge, too.

During the pandemic lockdown, most bookstores are shuttered or operating on an extremely limited basis, and this has led to a surge of mass-market purchasing from the big-box retailers.

A nation hungry for diversion has driven up sales for print books (it probably helps that after a day of screen-based work and Zoom meetings, the last thing you want is to relax with a fucking ebook).

Grocery stores and pharmacies are getting much-needed boosts from these book sales, and they're also keeping publishers in business, so that's all good news.

The bad news is that the mass-market's variety remains anemic compared to the incredible cambrian diversity of the pre-Reagan spinner racks.

But the good news is that the mass-market remains vital: there are millions of potential readers!

Today, those readers might never visit a bookstore, even if they could. But if we can get them to fall in love, they might become lifelong readers. And the best way to do that is to return pluralism to the mass market.

It's yet another way that surging support for antitrust and pro-competition regulation could benefit every industry – and every person who depends on that industry as a supplier or a customer.

This day in history (permalink)

#15yrsago Would you give a fiver a month for a UK tech/civil liberties org?

#15yrsago Phone company blocks access to telecoms union's website

#15yrsago War on Terror as a series of Unix shell interactions

#10yrsago The comics Bill Watterson sent to Berkeley Breathed

#5yrsago Jamaica's new copyright means Jamaicans pay for reggae the rest of the world gets free

#5yrsago Georgia sues Carl Malamud, calls publishing state laws "terrorism"

#5yrsago London terror cops forced to admit they're still investigating journos who reported Snowden leaks

#5yrsago Chrysler has to recall its cars due to security vulnerabilities

#5yrsago WWE fires Hulk Hogan after racist sex tape tirade exposed in court

#1yrago Because Internet: the new linguistics of informal English

#1yrago AP: the mob who attacked Hong Kong protesters were rural thugs hired by gangsters

#1yrago A generalized method for re-identifying people in "anonymized" data-sets

#1yrago William Barr's terrible, stupid idea to ban working crypto is slightly less terrible and stupid than earlier ideas

#1yrago E-scooter companies are desperate for repo men to stop impounding their vehicles

#1yrago Share prices slide as DOJ announces sweeping antitrust investigations of Big Tech

Colophon (permalink)

Today's top sources: Kottke (, Naked Capitalism (, Slashdot (

Currently writing:

  • My next novel, "The Lost Cause," a post-GND novel about truth and reconciliation. Today's progress: 552 words (41303 total).

Currently reading: Anger Is a Gift by Mark Oshiro

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