Pluralistic: 11 Oct 2020

Today's links

Hong Kong's ghost protest posters (permalink)

Hong Kong's pro-democracy movement has been routed by China's brutal, authoritarian government. The #612strike movement went into high gear on Jun 12, 2019 and endless months, the protesters embodied indomitable spirit, technological shrewdness, and creative exuberance.

For many of us supporting the protests from abroad, the most iconic images weren't the street-battles or the masks, but rather, the incredible visual art of the movement, which saw the city plastered with #BeWater posters:

Today, those poster-walls are erased, with only their ghosts lingering: painted over rectangles, scraps of glue and wheatpaste. They speak loudly. As @HongKongHermit says in their thread of images, "I can still hear you."

If you follow my work, you know that every day I do a retrospective of still-significant blog headlines from 1 year ago, five years ago, ten years ago, and fifteen years ago:;=typed_query&f;=live;=typed_query&f;=live;=typed_query&f;=live;=typed_query&f;=live

Reviewing these old posts every morning is an important part of how I understand world events. Revisiting the things that frightened, inspired, excited and puzzled your earlier selves is a very powerful way to putting the events of today into perspective.

My Hong Kong uprising posts were in my retrospectives all summer long, as we rolled through the anniversaries of so many victories and defeats. Seeing these erased, haunted walls this morning on Twitter was like a punch in the chest.

Basic income works (permalink)

The right has long held that homelessness is a symptom – of a lack of self-control, a lack of foresight, of addiction, mental illness, etc – and therefore the solution to it is training, incarceration, rehab, or rigid discipline.

None of this stuff worked.

For more than a decade, there's been a more pragmatic approach to homelessness: giving people homes. The housing first movement has repeatedly shown that the best way to make homeless people not homeless is to give. them. a. home.

After all, if you are struggling with addiction, mental illness, etc, or if you eed structure in your life, the chaos of not having a home only makes this a thousand times worse.

(Oh, and giving homeless people homes is much cheaper than treating homelessness as a crime)

In a similar vein, the Foundations for Social Change's New Leaf Project tried simply giving homeless people money (CAD7500). If the right is correct and homelessness is a moral failing, then this should make everything worse ("they'll just blow it on drugs").

So this experiment isn't just a test of the best way to address homelessness; it's also a test of whether the right's frame of homelessness as an individual failing is correct, or whether the left's conception of homelessness as a system problem is right.

The results are definitive: 18 months on, grant recipients found housing a year earlier than the control group; 70% experienced less food insecurity. Money went to food, clothes and rent, with a 39% decline in spending on booze, drugs and cigarettes.

The randomized, controlled study had 115 subjects aged 19-64, all of whom had experienced homelessness for at least six months. On average, they saved CAD1000 of the initial grant over the 12-month study. Participants spent more on their kids and other family members.

The participants' 12-month, $7500 cash grants amounted to less than half of what it costs to billet a person in a homeless shelter over the same period.

This is both amazing and obvious. The best cure for homelessness is a home. The best cure for poverty is money.

It's a very powerful argument for a basic income, too.

But not necessarily for a universal basic income.

Here's the problem with UBI: imagine two people, one of whom is in the 10% or 1% or 0.1% and has all their needs met every month; the other person does not.

Give each of them $1000/month. The poor person experiences a huge difference in their life: they go from not having their needs met – that is, not having a home or food or utilities – to having them met. This is transformative.

What about the rich person? Well, they put the money in a 401(k) or other tax-advantaged savings.

Fast forward a decade.

10 years later, the poor person still has their needs met. They have better health outcomes, their kids have better educational outcomes. Success!

The rich person, meanwhile, is a quarter million dollars richer, thanks to the miracle of compound interest.

We have reduced one of the worst aspects of inequality, but inequality itself remains intact, along with all the toxic, corrosive problems it creates.

The system remains rotten to the core.

Can we get the benefits of UBI while still addressing inequality?

Yes. Basic income remains a no-brainer. The problem is universality. We shouldn't give subsidies to rich people.

But that doesn't mean we should do means-testing.

Means-testing is humiliating and cruel. Universal services promote solidarity. Means-tested services are a form of Apartheid.

Imagine if you had to prove your poverty before you could go to a public library, or let your kid play in a public park or attend a public school.

But public parks, schools and libraries are a subsidy to the wealthy. We could insist they use country clubs, private schools and subscription libraries instead.

It's easy to understand how this ends: wealthy people use their political power to defund the public sphere.

The money they'd lose by having to pay for country clubs and private schools wouldn't reduce their spending power enough to prevent them from accumulating outsized political power.

To do that, we need to tax them.

That's what taxes are for: to reduce the private sector's spending power so that when the government creates new money to fund the programs we need, the new money isn't competing with the money that's already in circulation for the same goods, which creates inflation.

Governments, after all, don't pile up our tax money and then send it out again to pay for programs. When currency-issuing governments tax their citizens, they just annihilate that money. When they pay their citizens to do things like build roads, they create new money.

All the money in circulation is money the government has spent, but hasn't taxed out of existence All the money you and I have to spend is the government's deficit. If governments don't run deficits (if they taxed as much as they spent), there'd be nothing left for us!

Federal taxes don't pay for programs, but they DO something important. They keep rich people from getting too rich – getting so rich that they can distort our political process.

High tax rates on top wages and wealth solve the UBI vs BI conundrum without cruel means-testing. If you're rich, you get the UBI, but you lose it at tax-time; just like you get to use the library for free, but we tax away the money you saved by not going to the bookstore.

All of this also reveals the incompleteness of cash transfers. As powerful as this experiment was, it is even more exciting when combined with Housing First (if you think finding a home in a year is a good outcome, imagine how great getting a home tomorrow will be!).

Likewise other progressive, universal programs like a Federal Job Guarantee, which would set a true minimum wage – the wage every person who wants to work is guaranteed, irrespective of whether anyone in the private sector wants their labor.

Without such a guarantee, the true minimum wage is $0 – the price your labor fetches if no one in the private sector has a job for you.

Such universal programs must be complements to social programs like direct transfers, disability benefits, etc, not replacements for them.

When the current crisis is over we're going to face a massive unemployment and homelessness crisis. The private sector won't be able to solve it. The right's version of fixing this is workfare: Build Trump's wall or starve.

We need a powerful progressive alternative: grounded in caring, universality, and repairing the Earth. Direct transfers, housing first, and a jobs guarantee are policies that work:

  • Need money? Here's money.

  • Need a home? Here's a home.

  • Need a job? Here's a job.

If those sound expensive to you, consider the unbearable cost of mass poverty, homlessness and unemployment.

(Image: Grendelkhan, CC BY-SA)

Sign thief turns newspaper thief (permalink)

Peter De Yager owns the Foreign Candy Company in Hull, Iowa. He's a die-hard Republican, having donated more than $30,000 to GOP PACs and campaigns since 2019. And on July 26, he stole a Biden yard-sign from a private home in Monarch Cove.

De Yager initially pleaded not guilty to fifth-degree theft and trespassing, but eventually pleaded guilty on Sept 21 and paid $365 in fines.

De Yager's charges were published in the Sept 2 edition of the Dickinson County News.

Shortly after the Sept 2 paper hit the stands, De Yager went on a crime-spree, visiting a series of retailers who carried the paper and stealing their entire stock of the the paper, hitting newspaper vending boxes as well.

De Yager was captured on CCTV committing brazen thefts, sticking stacks of papers down his pants or wrapping them in a free-sheet and walking out. In one case, he tricked a clerk by asking her to look for gift cards, then snatched her stock while her back was turned.

"He put his Wall Street Journal down on top of the Dickinson County News and looked over to see if anyone was watching him, grabbed all the papers and walked out the door" – Tracy Theye, general manager, Okoboji Kum & Go

Theye confronted De Yager about his theft on a subsequent visit and he lied in response, saying that "he mistook them for the free Northwest Iowa Shopper publication and that he wanted to cut out all the coupons to a particular quick-service restaurant."

De Yager has since paid back at least some of the stores he stole from. He has pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor from one of his thefts, and been ordered to pay a $105 crime, with restitution (if any) to be determined later.

Fun fact: $20,000 of De Yager's GOP donations went to a PAC devoted to unseating the unrepentant Nazi Rep Steve King (not hyperbole, he's literally a proud supporter of an Austrian neo-Nazi group founded by a Nazi war criminal).

The PAC put IA state senator Randy Feenstra up against King in a primary race. Feenstra used to work for De Yager.

All of this has the makings of a delicious comic caper novel like a Carl Hiaasen plot transplanted to the midwest.

Attack Surface in The Observer (permalink)

The third Little Brother book, ATTACK SURFACE, came out in the UK on Oct 1 (it'll be published in the US/Canada on Oct 13 – that's TUESDAY!). In honour of the launch, I sat down for an interview with Ian Tucker, The Observer's science and tech editor.

It's a really good interview: Tucker got right into the issues of technological optimism and pessimism, letting me talk about how these balance: the belief that tech can be a force for liberation, the terror of how it can be force for oppression.

This is really the core of the Little Brother books (and my activism).

Attack Surface is about a techie who spent her career building oppressive tech and has to confront her moral legacy when the cyberweapons she built for use overseas are turned on her friends in the US.

It tries to expose the fallacy of the moral ledger: the idea that if you do good stuff, you erase your bad deeds (and vice versa). As we look to the unvarnished records of our cultural icons, we struggle with the question of whether they are, on balance, "good" or "bad."

I think that's wrong: the good doesn't cancel the bad, the bad doesn't cancel the good. They exist in superposition. The people you harm remained harmed, no matter what good you do. The people you helped remain helped, no matter what bad you do.

Fiction is a really good way to explore this. One of the cool things about writing from the PoV of Masha (Attack Surface's protagonist) is it lets me train a lens on Marcus, hero of the first two books, and reveal his own flawed nature.

And to invite the reader to ponder whether they'd rather be Marcus – blind to your own sins – or Masha – fully cognizant of them, but committing them anyway.

SF is a particularly good vehicle for this, because it allows readers not just to inhabit hypothetical personalities, but also hypothetical technological changes, giving us an emotional fly-through of a world that doesn't exist…yet.

That's a powerful experience. Countless people have told me that reading Little Brother and Homeland inspired them to get involved in tech and human rights: as cryptographers, programmers, activists, cyberlawyers.

In the interview, I cite Maria Farrell and her idea of the "Prodigal Tech Bro" – the repentant techie who has turned against the system.

Farrell argues that the Prodigal Son is redeemed through suffering, through which he finds humility, while the prodigal tech bro doesn't really suffer, and certainly doesn't learn humility.

Instead of elevating the voices of the people harmed by their inventions, prodigal tech bros continue to occupy center stage, and their mea culpas are also humblebrags (if you confess to having been an evil genius, you're also calling yourself a genius).

We also talk about my recent book HOW TO DESTROY SURVEILLANCE CAPITALISM, whose thesis is that tech's harms come not from using machine learning to control our behaviour, but rather from using MONOPOLY to deprive us of choice.

Tech makes it easier to find people with hard to find traits, which is useful for advertising (that's why they made it), and also useful for political and social organizing, for good or ill. It's how anyone with a disfavoured belief can find others of the same ilk.

I support some of those beliefs (antiracism, LGBTQA) and others I vehemently oppose (neofascism and eugenics). But it's wrong to attribute the existence of these beliefs to tech – rather, we should understand their surging growth as being ENABLED by tech (not caused by it).

The mistake that technological optimists made wasn't in assuming that tech could be a force for good – rather, it was in assuming that tech would resist monopolisation – that regulators would continue the trustbusting work they did on IBM and Microsoft.

I think we (or, at least, I) seriously missed the fact that Robert Bork, Ronald Reagon's Nixonite court sorcerer, had poisoned our economic discourse with an ideology that embraced monopoly and militated against pro-competitive regulation.

That poison was slowly seeping through the world, killing competition enforcement by slow stages. IBM and Microsoft were its last, dying gasps. Without it, the web was doomed to become five giant sites filled with screenshots from the other four.

Today, we see a resurgence in antimonopoly activism and a resurgence in a belief that technology is a critical part of resolving our crises and rescuing our future.

The Fully Automated Luxury Communism thought experiment of a few years back is giving way to a GND future of clean energy, care work, and climate remediation.

And people are demanding more of their technology! Waking up to the fact that the parts of technology they hate are optional – that they are the result of choices by tech execs who decided to harm their users to make money, and to protect the money by creating monopolies.

"No one came down off a mount with two stone tablets saying thou shalt stop rotating log files and start mining for actionable market intelligence. Those are choices that people made. And you could make different choices.Sergey Brin was not dragged into spying on you by the forces of history. He made a choice. We could make a different one. If we remove the spying would you find the web searches less adorable?"

This day in history (permalink)

#15yrsago 1966 Batmobile as a papercraft replica

#10yrsago Rise Again: would you rather be killed by zombies or Blackwater mercs?

#10yrsago Irish High Court strikes down “3 strikes” copyright rule

#10yrsago Library of Congress: Copyright is killing sound archiving

#10yrsago Hitting droplets of nitroglycerin with a hammer in slow motion

#5yrsago Funny because it’s true: “Tories to build thousands of affordable second homes”

#1yrago Ikea’s founder was a Nazi, and never stopped praising the Nazi leader he called “Best Brother”

#1yrago Fatboy Slim mashes up Greta Thunberg’s UN speech

#1yrago ​13 years later, World of Warcraft is STILL telling queer guilds they’re not allowed to advertise their queerness

#1yrago Verizon dumps another Oath property for peanuts: RIP, Mapquest

#1yrago The world’s “free trade zones”: hives of scum and villainy

#1yrago The Sacklers come to Sesame Street as a muppet is revealed to have had an addicted mother

Colophon (permalink)

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

Currently writing: My next novel, "The Lost Cause," a post-GND novel about truth and reconciliation. Yesterday's progress: 516 words (68593 total).

Currently reading: Harrow the Ninth, Tamsyn Muir

Latest podcast: Someone Comes to Town, Someone Leaves Town (part 17)

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