Pluralistic: 29 Aug 2020

Today's links

California's preventable fires (permalink)

California's on fire. Again.

It doesn't have to be.

There's overwhelming, longstanding scientific consensus that California fires are due to a century-long aversion to controlled burns, and yet the state is vapor-locked when it comes to doing something with that knowledge.

Writing in Propublica, Elizabeth Weil sums up the entire situation in six words: "The state is in the hole."

California has a century of fire debt, compounded by climate change. It's gonna burn. How that happens is up to us.

Controlled burns are politically impossible (for now), thanks to "culture, greed, liability laws and good intentions gone awry." Since 1905, California has "made war on nature," starting with the genocide of First Nations people who had tended the land with fire.

After the 1906 SF quake and the fires that killed 300,000, California adopted a fire policy more like "a field surgeon wielding a bone saw than a preventive medicine specialist with a tray full of vaccines."

Where there is war, there are profiteers, and the same military-industrial complex that has perfected Beltway Banditry has also turned fire into commerce, with Cal Fire budgets heading to $1B this year, much of showered on the likes of Lockheed Martin.

Perversely, most of this money is spent on "air shows" that dump fire-suppressant on forests that are overdue for burning, doing nothing but exacerbating the problem (not even saving inhabited areas).

And while prison laborers earn slave wages risking life and limb to fight fires, Cal Fire's salaried workforce average $148k/year and periodically, these firefighters have turned arsonist, starting fires.

The perps are usually characterized as deranged, but may simply be looking for overtime.

Contrast this money-making juggernaut with controlled burns. When megafires blaze, contractors don't have to get permits to drive into wooded areas, or fill in impact statements.

Controlled burns aren't emergencies and don't generate overtime pay, and megafires are never shut down because there's a lot of particulate that day such that a burn would push pollution over the Clean Air Act's PM2.5 threshold.

But controlled burns allow residents with breathing issues to leave town, they allow for mask stockpiling, they can be scheduled around major events or the school year. The pollution from controlled burns is "minuscule" when compared to wildfires.

But a burn boss who never sets a controlled burn faces no consequences, while the burn boss whose controlled burn goes awry can get into serious trouble.

Despite all this, there's still inaction. Gov Newsom's Memo of Understanding from earlier this month is toothless. The last Quadrennial Fire Review predicted that California would continue its course of inaction until a fire wiped out a city on the scale of San Diego.

California needs to burn a million acres to dig itself out of the hole of a century's worth of fire debt.

Some people are forming burn co-ops and creating burner certification programs, creating a volunteer corps of controlled burners.

"You won’t find any climate deniers on the fire line." -Tim Ingalsbee, founder, Firefighters United for Safety, Ethics, and Ecology

Zuck calls Apple a monopolist (permalink)

The copyright scholar James Boyle has a transformative way to think about political change. He tells a story about how the word "ecology" welded together a bunch of disparate issues into a movement.

Prior to "ecology," there were people who cared about owls, or air pollution, or acid rain, or whales, and while none of these people thought the others were misguided, they also didn't see them as being as part of the same cause.

Whales aren't anything like owls and acid rain isn't anything like ozone depletion. But the rise of the term "ecology," turned issues into a movement. Instead of being 1,000 causes, it was a single movement with 1,000 on-ramps.

Movements can strike at the root, look to the underlying economic and philosophical problems that underpin all the different causes that brought the movement's adherents together. Movements get shit done.

Which brings me to monopolies. This week, Mark Zuckerberg, one of the world's most egregious, flagrant, wicked monopolists, made a bunch of public denunciations of Apple for…monopolistic conduct.

Or, at least, he tried to. Apple stopped him. Because they actually do have a monopoly (and a monoposony) (in legal-economic parlance, these terms don't refer to a single buyer or seller, they refer to a firm with "market power" – the power to dictate pricing).

Facebook is launching a ticket-sales app and the Ios version was rejected because it included a notice to users that included in their price was a 30% vig that Apple was creaming off of Facebook's take.

Apple blocked the app because this was "irrelevant" information, and their Terms of Service bans "showing irrelevant" information.

This so enraged Zuck that he gave a companywide address – of the sort that routinely leaks – calling Apple a monopolist (they are), accused them of extracting monopoly rents (they do), and of blocking "innovation" and "competition" (also true).

Now, there are a bunch of Apple customers who consider themselves members of an oppressed religious minority who'll probably stop here (perhaps after an angry reply), and that's OK. You do you. But I have more to say.

Apple is a monopolist, sure, but more importantly, they are monoposonists – these are firms with "excessive buying power," gatekeepers who control access to purchasers. Monoposony power is much easier to accumulate than monopoly power.

In the econ literature, we see how control over as little as 10% of the market can cement a firm's position, giving it pricing power over suppliers. Monopsony is the source of "chickenization," named for the practices of America's chicken-processing giants.

Chickenized poultry farmers have to buy all their chicks from Big Chicken; the packers tell them what to feed their birds, which vets to use, and spec out their chicken coops. They set the timing on the lights in the coops, and dictate feeding schedules.

The chickens can only be sold to the packer that does all this control-freaky specifying, and the farmer doesn't find out how much they'll get paid until the day they sell their birds.

Big Chicken has data on all the farmers they've entrapped and they tune the payments so that the farmers can just barely scratch out a living, teetering on the edge of bankruptcy and dependent on the packer for next year's debt payments.

Farmers who complain in public are cut off and blackballed – like the farmer who lost his contract and switched to maintaining chicken coops, until the packer he'd angered informed all their farmers that if they hired him, they would also get cancelled.

Monopsony chickenizes whose groups of workers, even whole industries. Amazon has chickenized publishers. Uber has chickenized drivers. Facebook and Google have chickenized advertisers. Apple has chickenized app creators.

Apple is a monopsony. So is Facebook.

Market concentration is like the Age of Colonization: at first, the Great Powers could steer clear of one another's claims. If your rival conquered a land you had your eye on, you could pillage the one next door.

Why squander your energies fighting each other when you could focus on extracting wealth from immiserated people no one else had yet ground underfoot?

But eventually, you run out of new lands to conquer, and your growth imperative turns into direct competition.

We called that "World War One." During WWI, there were plenty of people who rooted for their countries and cast the fighting as a just war of good vs evil. But there was also a sizable anti-war movement.

This movement saw the fight as a proxy war between aristocrats, feuding cousins who were so rich that they didn't fight over who got grandma's china hutch – they fought over who got China itself.

The elites who started the Great War had to walk a fine line. If they told their side that Kaiser Bill is only in the fight to enrich undeserving German aristos, they risked their audience making the leap to asking whether their aristos were any more deserving.

GAFAM had divided up cyberspace like the Pope dividing the New World: ads were Goog, social is FB, phones are Apple, enterprise is Msft, ecommerce belongs to Amazon. There was blurriness at the edges, but they mostly steered clear of one another's turf.

But once they'd chickenized all the suppliers and corralled all the customers, they started to challenge one another's territorial claims, and to demand that we all take a side, to fight for Google's right to challege FB's social dominance, or to side with FB over Apple.

And they run a risk when they ask us to take a side, the risk that we'll start to ask ourselves whether any of these (tax-dodging, DRM-locking, privacy invading, dictator-abetting, workforce abusing) companies deserve our loyalty.

And that risk is heightened because the energy to reject monopolies (and monoposonies) needn't start with tech – the contagion may incubate in an entirely different sector and make the leap to tech.

Like, maybe you're a wrestling fan, devastated to see your heroes begging on Gofundme to pay their medical bills and die with dignity in their 50s from their work injuries, now there's only one major league whose owner has chickenized his workers.;=FLM6hLIAIO-KfsNFn8ENnftw&index;=767

Maybe you wear glasses and just realized that a single Italian company, Luxottica, owns every major brand, retailer, lab and insurer and has jacked up prices 1,000%.

Or maybe the market concentration you care about it in healthcare, cable, finance, pharma, ed-tech, publishing, film, music, news, oil, mining, aviation, hotels, automotive, rail, ag-tech, biotech, lumber, telcoms, or a hundred other sectors.

That is, maybe you just figured out that the people who care about owls are on the same side as the people who care about the ozone layer.
All our markets have become hourglass shaped, with monop(olists/sonists) sitting at the pinch-point, collecting rents from both sides, and they've run out of peons to shake down, so they're turning on each other.

They won't go gently. Every Big Tech company is convinced that they have the right to be the pinchpoint in the hour-glass, and is absolutely, 100% certain that they don't want to be trapped in the bulbs on either side of the pinch.

They know how miserable life is for people in the bulbs, because they are the beneficiaries of other peoples' misery. Misery is for other people.

But they're in a trap. Monopolies and monopsonies are obviously unjust, and the more they point out the injustices they are experiencing, the greater the likelihood that we'll start paying attention to the injustices they are inflicting.

Much of the energy to break up Big Tech is undoubtedly coming from the cable and phone industry. This is a darkly hilarious fact that many tech lobbyists have pointed out, squawking in affront: "How can you side with Comcast and AT&T; to fight monopolies?!"

They have a point. Telcoms is indescribably, horrifically dirty and terrible and every major company in the sector should be shattered, their execs pilloried and their logomarks cast into a pit for 1,000 years.

Their names should be curses upon our lips: "Dude, what are you, some kind of Time Warner?"

But this just shows how lazy and stupid and arrogant monopolies are. Telcoms think that if they give us an appetite for trustbusting Big Tech, that breaking up GAFAM will satiate us.

They could not be more wrong. There is no difference in the moral case for trustbusting Big Tech and busting up Big Telco. If Big Tech goes first, it'll be the amuse-bouche. There's a 37-course Vegas buffet of trustbustable industries we'll fill our plates with afterward.

Likewise, if you needed proof that Zuck is no supergenius – that he is merely a mediocre sociopath who has waxed powerful because he was given a license to cheat by regulators who looked the other way while he violated antitrust law – just look at his Apple complaints.

Everything he says about Apple is 100% true.

Everything he says about Apple is also 100% true of Facebook.

Can Zuck really not understand this? If not, there are plenty of people in the bulbs to either side of his pinch who'd be glad to explain it to him.

The monopolized world is all around us. That's the bad news.

The good news is that means that everyone who lives in the bulbs – everyone except the tiny minority who operate the pinch – is on the same side.

There are 1,000 reasons to hate monopolies, which means that there are 1,000 on-ramps to a movement aimed at destroying them. A movement for pluralism, fairness and solidarity, rather than extraction and oligarchy.

And just like you can express your support for "ecology" by campaigning for the ozone layer while your comrade campaigns for owls, you can fight oligarchy by fighting against Apple, or Facebook, or Google, or Comcast, or Purdue Poultry…or Purdue Pharma.

You are on the same side as the wrestling fan who just gofundemed a beloved wrestler, and the optician who's been chickenized by Luxottica, and the Uber driver whose app just cut their wages.

This day in history (permalink)

#15yrsago Judge to RIAA: Keep your "conference center" out of my court

#10yrsago 10 Rules for Radicals: Lessons from rogue archivist Carl Malamud

#10yrsago Homeowners' associations: hives of petty authoritarianism

Colophon (permalink)

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