Pluralistic: 01 Sep 2020

Today's links

Podcasting "How to Destroy Surveillance Capitalism" (permalink)

This week on my podcast, I read a long excerpt from "How to Destroy Surveillance Capitalism" – my book-length essay (AKA "nonfiction novella") about the relationship between monopolies, surveillance and conspiracism.

The essay is a response to Zuboff's 2019 book on the subject, which focuses on the ability of Big Tech to persuade us with automated tools – an ability I think is very overstated, thanks in large part to tech's own boasts about their products' efficacy.

I think you can explain the same evils – conspiracism, nihilism – and more (dictatorships, climate emergency) with a much more materialistic, traditional explanations: wealth concentration begets monopoly, monopolies destroy the world and our lives.

You can read the whole essay here for free:

(There's a print and ebook edition coming shortly too)

Here's the MP3 for this week's ep (hosted free by the Internet Archive, who'll host your work free, too)

and here's my podcast feed:

Set My Heart to Five (permalink)

Set My Heart to Five is a satirical sf novel by Simon Stephenson in the absurdist mode of Kurt Vonnegut: it's told from the PoV of Jared, a biological robot – human body, robot brain – who works as a dentist in Ypsilanti, MI, and who has started to malfunction.

Jared is experiencing emotions, something no bot is supposed to have. He confides in the human MD he shares a practice with – a failed filmmaker who diagnoses Jared with depression and sends him into Detroit to watch old movies.

There aren't many old movies around. Ever since The Crash, where all of humanity lost its passwords and locked itself out of the internet, huge swathes of our culture has vanished. Most movies are modern films in which bots try to exterminate humanity and have to be defeated.

Jared's forays into old film awaken a full suite of human emotions in him, triggering the realization that he must free humanity from its genocidal anti-bot bias, and that the best way to do that is to make a movie about a heroic bot.

Lucky for him, he's got his doctor friend's old book of rules for screenwriters. He travels covertly to LA by train, buys a new identity barcode on the black market, gets a job at a taco joint, and enrolls in a screenwriting class.

Jared's story is a tale of bravery, pure hearted simplicity, and incomprehension in the face of venality, exploitation and betrayal – it's got love, humor, sacrifice and bravery.

It's a funny, breezy book that is laid out like a screenplay – its author, Simon Stephenson, is an ex-Pixar screenwriter – and has already been purchased for adaptation by Edgar Wright, best known for the Scott Pilgrim movie.

Set My Heart is meta without being insiderish, and, like Vonnegut, the simplicity disguises some sharp social satire, making this a serious book that is never dull.

Mediactive (permalink)

For decades, Dan Gillmor's been at the forefront of a rigorous, positive view of what journalism should be in the digital era: relentlessly committed to the truth, and relentless committed to the possibilities of the medium, the importance of collaborating with his audience.

Gillmor has moved on from his perch as the longstanding star columnist of the San Jose Mercury News – then the tech industry's paper of record, where he was a clear-eyed terror of tech pitchmen – and is now teaching journalism at ASU.

His latest project is Mediactive, an online course that builds on his 2010 open access book of the same title:

The subtitle says it all: "How to participate in our digital world." The curriculum includes how:

  • to spot misinformation

  • the professional news media operate

  • to assess credible sources/claims

  • to use media to participate in your community

This is the second time ASU's Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication News Co/Lab has run this three-week course, but it stems from work they started in 2017. It starts on Sept 13:

Here's how to sign up; most of the work is asynchronous but there are also several live lectures.

America's economy is cooked (permalink)

We are in an extraordinary moment, but not an entirely unprecedented one. Since the earliest days, societies have had to cope with disasters that wiped out the ability of everyday people to service their debts and thus threatened to destroy their societies.

If you've read U Missouri econ prof Michael Hudson's writings on the subject, you know that for millennia, rulers in these circumstances simply wiped out the debts, declaring a "jubilee" that allowed people to rebuild after disasters rather than being trapped in debt spirals.

In a new essay on Naked Capitalism called "How an 'Act of God' Pandemic Is Destroying the West: The US Is Saving the Financial Sector, Not the Economy," Hudson reveals the abyss on whose brink we are balanced, and what we must do to pull back from it.

Hudson's oft-repeated golden rule is "Debts that can't be paid, won't be paid." That is to say: making it harder to declare bankruptcy, or binding debtors over to arbitration or wage-garnishing won't actually get them to pay debts they cannot afford.

This is a very sharp observation in the US context. The 2008 crisis was "solved" by bailing out finance, not people – and so the finance sector was able to lend to consumers to buy things again, while consumer debt mounted to spectacular levels.

Between mounting costs for housing, education, transport and health – a place to sleep, a path to employment, a way to get to work, the physical capacity to do your job – being alive has meant increasing your debt burden.

And now the US real economy – the wage-generating (and thus debt-servicing) economy – has ground to a halt. The finance economy continues to boom, largely on the (obviously false) premise that debts will continue to be repaid.

It's worth contrasting the US approach – the $1200/person bailout, the $6T finance bailout – with other countries that are less beholden to their finance sectors.

Canada and many EU governments simply assumed the payrolls of firms, relieving them of their major expense and providing ready cash to consumers that the can use to purchase from those retailers that remain.

And in China, where most of the finance sector is state owned – where banks are public utilities – debts were suspended: "debts, rents, taxes and other carrying charges of living and doing business cannot resume until economic normalcy is able to resume."

Contrast with the US, with ever-more-desperate measures to deny the iron law that "debts that can't be paid won't be paid."

Regulators have unshackled new forms of predatory lending (aka "fintech") with APRs in the hundreds or thousands of percent:

And at the other end of that pipeline is a massive debt-collection bubble, as fintech subprime darlings like Oportun unleash a tsunami of debt lawsuits (more than 30/day!) against people with no means to pay:

Desperate, broke people are willing to work for ever-lower wages, which puts downward pressure on everyone's wages.

Hudson: "Rising debt overhead serves the business and financial sector by lowering wages while extracting more interest, financial fees, rent and insurance."

America's longest period of expansion – the post-war boom – kicked off with the lowest levels of debt in living memory (wartime wages boomed, while wartime shortages left consumers with nothing to buy). Every recovery since has increased the economy's debt-to-asset ratio.

Eventually there comes a reckoning. Debts that can't be paid won't be paid. Business as usual has been to "let creditors foreclose and draw all the income and wealth over subsistence needs into their own hands."

But that's no longer possible. We've hit bottom.

US consumer debts can only be paid by "shrinking production and consumption, leaving them as strapped as Greece has been since 2015."

Something has to give: "either the populationā€™s broad economic interests, or the vested interests insisting that labor, industry and the government must bear the cost of arrears that have built up during the economic shutdown."

The decision to to force businesses to pay rent during the shutdown led mass bankruptcies: a business that closed for months while accruing a rent buildup cannot recover – even a year of normal takings will leave it with no profits, every penny diverted to the landlord.

19% of hotel mortgages are in arrears, 10% of retailers – commercial real-estate mortgages stand at $2.4T. 40% of retail tenants are not currently paying rent – building up more indebtedness that can't be paid (debts that can't be paid won't be paid).

And while the US government can conjure money into existence by typing numbers into a spreadsheet at the central bank, states and cities (now starved of sales/property tax) cannot, and many are also bound by "balanced budget" rules.

Neither the GOP nor the Dems are willing to confront this. McConnell has advised states to meet bond obligations by raiding their pensions. Dems have abandoned efforts to provide relief to working people.

It's a very different story in China: "China can recover financially and fiscally from the virus disruption because most debts ultimately are owned to the government-based banking system. Money can be created to finance the material economy, labor and industry, construction and agriculture. When a company is unable to pay its bills and rent, the government doesn't stand by and let it be closed down and sold at a distressed price to a vulture investor."

For thousands of years, governments have understood that crises can only be weathered through debt forgiveness. The Anglo-American madness that insists that debts that can't be paid will someday be paid has hit bottom.

This day in history (permalink)

#15yrsago Man is arrested for being the alleged subway wanker who was caught on Flickr

#10yrsago Woody Guthrie pencils

#10yrsago News stories about stupid young people make old people feel good

#10yrsago Koko Be Good: complex and satisfying graphic novel about finding meaning in life

#5yrsago Little Robot: nearly wordless kids' comic from Zita the Spacegirl creator

Colophon (permalink)

Today's top sources:

Currently writing: My next novel, "The Lost Cause," a post-GND novel about truth and reconciliation. Yesterday's progress: 526 words (55774 total).

Currently reading: Gideon the Ninth, Tamsyn Muir

Latest podcast: Someone Comes to Town, Someone Leaves Town (part 14)

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