Pluralistic: 02 Nov 2020

Today's links

Trump's electoral equilibrium (permalink)

The equilibrium in US elections is a balance of:

  • pleasing rich people (who give party figures sinecures via consulting/speaking/think tank fees) and;

  • terrifying the base into turning out by pointing out how awful the other guy is, what with all his plute-osculating.

A feature of this equilibrium is that the unfitness of the other side is a gift to your own side. The worse Trump is, the more establishment-friendly the Dem candidate can be.

In other words, Trump needs to get slugs to vote for salt and Biden needs to get turkeys to vote for Christmas, and the optimal way to do that is by pointing fingers at the other guy. That way, you don't have to promise voter-pleasing policies that upset the donor class.

A transformative politician who turns out the base also flushes out establishment opposition: lavishly funded smear campaigns that suppress your own voter turnout as a necessary cost of heading off voter-pleasing, plute-punishing policies.

This "demoralize the other side's voters" game is a race to the bottom. It predates Trump, though, as is his method, Trump accelerated it. He took the lid off the salt-shaker and demanded that his slugs vote for a gush, not a sprinkle.

There's something seriously cult-creepy about the maso-fascism of Trump's GOP, where deliberately inhaling virus droplets is a sign of loyalty and being hospitalized for exposure after a Nebraska rally is a badge of honor.

Fool me twice we don't get fooled again: the crowds of stranded vulnerable people after Trump's Georgia rally last night, hitching rides with strangers in sealed vehicles, huddled on the ground for warmth – they must have suspected this possibility.

It's a Trumpian innovation: not just frightening your base with boogeyman tales about the other guy, but also inspiring them to eternal cultlike loyalty by performatively abusing them, even killing some of them. That may scare some off, but the remainder are bone-loyal.

If you've stuck by your guy after he invited you to a ratlicking party and then left you to die of exposure at the end of a lonely country road; then no rape scandal, no tax return, no unjust enrichment leak will budge you from your position.

You've drunk the bleach.

That's why it's such a goddamned nailbiter of an election. As Nate Silver reminds us, it's not just that Trump has been volubly signalling his intention to steal the election – there's a (slim) chance he could actually just win.

Winning the popular election is basically impossible (<1%), but that's not how the GOP wins, anyway. The Dems have won 7 out of the last 8 federal popular-vote tallies. But Trump could very well carry the Electoral College.

Silver points to data showing that Biden's gains are coming from Republicans who are sick of Trump, not Democrats who sat out the 2016 election but decided to cast a vote this time around.

These GOP Biden voters are slugs who used to vote for salt-sprinkle, but draw the line at maso-fascism, the lidless salt-cellar free-pour.

The Dems who sat out 2016 and plan to sit out 2020 are turkeys who are done voting for Christmas, no matter how bad the other guy is.

"The other guy's worse" electoral strategy was always going to reach a breaking point. Eventually, politicians have to offer us something to vote for, not against.

Trump billed the White House $3 per glass of water (permalink)

Remember the 2016 campaign when Trump kept telling us that

a) The government was hopelessly corrupt, sending vast fortunes to gouging profiteers and beltway bandits; and

b) He knew how it worked because he was really good at it?

He was telling the truth, on both counts.

Here's the invoice Trump's Mar-a-Lago sent to the White House after he held a state dinner with (then-)Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in 2018:

The bill breakdown shows Trump billed the US taxpayer $3 for each glass of water served that night.

Trump's extracted at least $8.1m via price-gouging that he was on both side of – Trump, Inc billing Pres. Trump, who signed off on the expenses.

Trump's critics are careful to document his lies, but they're less vocal about his truths. When Trump said that the US government was a grift, he wasn't lying. When he said he knew how it worked, he wasn't lying.

When he said that the political establishment was playing the people for suckers, he wasn't lying.

The fact that he was obviously going to worsen these problems wasn't as material to some voters as the fact that he was finally saying something they knew to be true.

Four years later, he's proved himself right, over and over again, and whatever happens this week, he's unlikely to face meaningful consequences for his crimes.

Trustbusting Google (permalink)

Today, The Daily Beast published "The Justice Department Finally—Finally!—Takes on Google and the Danger of Monopolies," my op-ed on tech antitrust and its connection to the digital rights movement.

I'm in my 19th year as a digital rights activist, and while there's a vogue of accusing the movement of being blind to the possibilities of techo-dystopia, that's a revisionist history. You don't devote your life to the cause if you think it's automatically going to be great.

But there was a blind-spot: the assumption that antitrust action would maintain the dynamism, opportunity and variety of the early commercial internet, keeping it from devolving into five giant websites filled with screenshots of text from the other four.

There was good reason for that assumption, of course. If you got online in the 1980s, then your modem connected to phone lines operated by post-AT&T-breakup; "Baby Bells."

The reason your PC ran DOS is that IBM was so traumatized by a 12-year antitrust investigation that it allowed Microsoft to make its OS, rather than risking more enforcement through vertical integration.

And the PC clones from dozens of new upstarts were only possible because IBM didn't pursue the then-tiny company Phoenix for cloning its ROMs, again, out of fear of a rerun of its antitrust trauma.

When Microsoft came to dominate 95% of the desktop, the DoJ stepped in again to punish it, and if they failed in their breakup bid, at least they cowed the Beast of Redmond so that it stopped killing startups the way it had with Netscape, allowing Google to rise.

What we didn't understand was that Ronald Reagan had gutshot US antitrust enforcement and these were its last gasps, as it bled out over two decades.

We didn't understand how thoroughly Reagan's court sorcerer, Robert Bork, had transformed the consensus on monopolies.

We didn't understand that every president that came after Reagan, right up to today, would continue to encourage monopolization under cover of the doctrine of Robert Bork, creating a world where every industry has collapsed into oligarchy.

  • Five publishers
  • Four studios

  • Three labels

  • Two brewers

  • One eyewear company

and falling.

Which is why the federal Google antitrust action is exciting – not merely because the complaint threads the impossible narrow eye of Robert Bork's needle for anti-monopoly enforcement; but because it made so many people recognize that getting Google for search dominance is like getting Capone on tax-evasion. The pretense that monopolies are good, actually, is wearing so thin that even its beneficiaries are doubting it.

One area that interests me with my digital-rights-activist hat on is how monopoly changed the fortunes of tech workers. Back when there was competition in the industry, tech workers had a stake in unfettered tech industry growth.

But monopolization created the investors' "kill zone": the areas adjacent to Big Tech's walled gardens that no one will invest in, recognizing that Big Tech can simply obliterate any competitor in these areas.

That leaves Big Tech to enjoy double-digit year-on-year growth without having to endure what Peter Thiel calls "inefficient" competition. It also means that tech workers don't realistically dream of doing to Google what Google did to Yahoo.

The best they can hope for is to do a fake "startup" that's actually aimed at "acqui-hire" – an acquisition for the sole purpose of hiring a team that has proven it can field a product. The startup's product is flushed, and the VCs get a commission in the form of a buyout.

Instead of building an empire or "making a dent in the universe," tech workers are promised a well-funded retirement, mini-kitchen kombucha on tap, and free massages on Wednesdays.

The path into the tech industry generally starts with the heady rush of empowerment that comes from writing code and using networks to share it, and to find communities of likeminded people. The rush of self-determination and agency.

But monopolists thrive by moving risk off their balance sheets and onto those of their suppliers, users and customers – by confiscating and hoarding agency and self-determination.

Techies who fell in love with the experience of technological agency now spend every hour God sends taking it away from others. I think that this – along with other fracture lines – is behind so many of the moral reckonings we're seeing from tech workers.

Tech Solidarity, Tech Won't Build It, No Tech For ICE, the googler walkout, etc – techies are confronting their role in technological dystopia, and they are flexing their muscle. It's a gorgeous thing to behold.

My latest novel, ATTACK SURFACE, is a Little Brother sequel for those techies – a story of moral reckoning with complicity in technological oppression. It came out a couple weeks ago, and I've heard from a lot of tech workers with whom it resonated.

So many activists, security researchers, human rights cyberlawyers and ethical hackers tell me that their careers started when they read the first two Little Brother novels. Today, it feels like they're finally getting the reinforcements they need.

Podcasting part 21 of Someone Comes to Town, Someone Leaves Town (permalink)

This week on my podcast, part 21 of my reading of my 2006 novel "Someone Comes to Town, Someone Leaves Town," a novel Gene Wolfe called "a glorious book unlike any book you’ve ever read."

Here's the previous installments:

Here's my podcast feed:

and here's a direct link to the MP3 (hosting courtesy of the Internet Archive; they'll host your stuff for free, forever):

This day in history (permalink)

#15yrsago Life-size working Operation Game costume

#10yrsago How I use the Internet when I’m playing with my kid

#10yrsago Bedtime Story: Supernatural thriller about the dark side of “getting lost in a good book”

#10yrsago Duelling useless machines: a metaphor for polarized politics

#10yrsago The Master Switch: Tim “Net Neutrality” Wu explains what’s at stake in the battle for net freedom

#5yrsago America’s a rigged carnival game that rips off the poor to fatten the rich

#5yrsago As America’s middle class collapses, no one is buying stuff anymore

#5yrsago Chrome won’t trust Symantec-backed SSL as of Jun 1 unless they account for bogus certs

#5yrsago Kim Stanley Robinson’s “Aurora”: space is bigger than you think

#1yrago Suppressed internal emails reveal that the IRS actively helped tax-prep giants suppress Free File

#1yrago Airbnb’s easily gamed reputation system and poor customer service allow scammers to thrive

#1yrago Chicago teachers declare victory after 11-day strike

#1yrago Toronto approves Google’s surveillance city, despite leaks revealing Orwellian plans

#1yrago Report from a massive Chinese surveillance tech expo, where junk-science “emotion recognition” rules

#1yrago My review of Sandworm: an essential guide to the new, reckless world of “cyberwarfare”

#1yrago Blizzard’s corporate president publicly apologizes for bungling players’ Hong Kong protests, never mentions Hong Kong

Colophon (permalink)

Today's top sources: Naked Capitalism (, Boing Boing (

Currently writing: My next novel, "The Lost Cause," a post-GND novel about truth and reconciliation. Friday's progress: 525 words (79380 total).

Currently reading: Harrow the Ninth, Tamsyn Muir

Latest podcast: Someone Comes to Town, Someone Leaves Town (part 20)

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