Pluralistic: 04 Dec 2020

Today's links

Student debt trap (permalink)

There's a tacit bet on the left that Biden might turn out be a president in the mold of FDR or Lincoln – a centrist margin-tinkerer whose susceptibility to political currents is such that he can be pushed into real, structural reform.

That's why we're talking about striking student debt, even as Biden ("The Senator from MNBA") stacks his cabinet with finance-bros of all genders (see also: why we're talking about universal health care, police defunding, real climate policies, etc).

These fights are existential. As I wrote in the epigraph to Attack Surface: some fights you fight because they're fights you win, and other fights you fight because you must. When the ship sinks, you tread water until you run out of kicks.

So there's a lively left debate on student debt forgiveness that's really chewy and interesting, even if it turns on many unlikely hypotheticals about Biden's lack of spine and concomitant susceptibility to pressure from the base.

Take Marshall Steinbaum's work on skyrocketing student debt defaults: he argues that we're already forgiving student debt, but only after it has destroyed debtors. We're wiping out human capital and creditors' balance-sheets, at tragic human cost.

By contrast, Michael Olenick argues that student debt forgiveness would transfer billions from the USG to predatory lenders (who'd pay off the debts) and stick debtors with massive tax-bills for the "benefit" of debt-unshackling.

As an alternative, he proposes simplifying discharging student debt through bankruptcy, which would euthanize the rentiers who hold the debt, and unshackle debtors without creating unpayable tax liabilities.

The main forgiveness proposal comes from Elizabeth Warren, who proposes a $50k cap. This number has undergone a lot of scrutiny, with analysts slicing up the data to see who would see the most benefit from this and whether it would be sufficient.

Today, I want to consider a different number: $236,000.

That's how much Chris, a 59-year-old debtor, owes for college. Now, Chris didn't borrow that much! In fact, Chris started out at Missouri State in 1980 paying cash for his courses.

But by 1981, Chris needed a loan. Unfortunately for Chris, that was the year that Ronald Reagan, a human monster, raised interest rates on student loans from 7% to 9%. If he'd borrowed from the start, he'd have gotten a much lower rate.

By the time Chris finished his law-degree, he had $79k in loans. But he figured that he'd be OK, because a) He would get a good job and b) He could deduct the interest from his student loans.

But in 1986, Ronald Reagan (see above) changed the tax code so that college grads could no longer deduct loan interest. Chris got burned out on the law, had a terrible divorce and his life fell apart.

He missed payments and got hit with hard penalties. Then interest on the penalties. In 2002 he was making $28k/year. By 2004, 15% of his paycheck was being garnished to service his loans, which continued until 2011. Since then, he's faced 25% garnishment.

All told, Chris has paid $190,000 against the $79,000 in loans he's taken out.

He owes $236,000 still.

How did that happen? Well, first, there were the terrible penalties he accrued. But then there's the way the loans are serviced out of those paycheck garnishments: the money is applied solely to the penalties, meaning his interest piles onto his principal, which grows.

He's 59. His loan-servicer won't renegotiate his loan, even though they know he's going to retire in ~9years and will likely be dead in ~15 years. The loan servicer is content to continue taking 25% of every cent he gets until he's buried and then hit his estate.

Here's Matt Taibbi with the bottom line: "Chris made mistakes, but as he’s noticed, so have other types of borrowers."

Here's Chris: “It doesn't appear that we seem to hesitate much in giving money to Ford or Chrysler, or a collection of banks."

Postmortem of the NYPD's murder of a Black man (permalink)

In 2019, two NYPD officers murdered Kawaski Trawick, a 32 year old Black man who struggled with mental illness and addiction. Trawick was in his own apartment, he was not violent, and the police killed him 112 seconds after they broke in.

The story of Trawick's murder is a near-perfect microcosm of the NYPD's many sins and defects.

  • One of the officers who entered Trawick's apartment had "forgotten" his bodycam

  • The officers violated every NYPD policy: entering without knocking, escalating rather than de-escalating, using a taser, shooting

  • The NYPD refuses to release unredacted bodycam footage, citing Trawick's privacy, but Trawick's family wants the footage released

  • The inexperienced white cop who tased and then murdered Trawick did so in spite of repeated admonishments from his more experienced Black partner to stand down

  • The officers disregarded their dispatcher's notifications that Trawick had struggled with mental illness

  • The officers are still serving, and the Bronx prosecutor has declared that there is no basis for criminal charges against them

  • NYPD implies that the officers haven't been interviewed about the killing; this is offered as pretense for not releasing bodycam footage

  • The NYPD has decades of history of murdering mentally ill Black people in their own homes, it claims to have addressed this through additional training

  • But the training is of low quality, poorly administered, with few records kept and little followup

  • The vast majority of NYPD officers have not received the training

  • However, the officers who murdered Trawick – Herbert Davis and Brendan Thompson – did receive the training and it didn't help (Davis completed his training 3 days before he murdered Trawick)

The animating principle of "abolish the police" is that police murder and racism are systemic problems, not individual ones. The problem isn't that bad people become cops, or being a cop is corrupting. The problem is the institution itself, the very model of policing.

Institutional problems have institutional causes and need systemic solutions, and the danger of focusing on individuals – victims and perpetrators – is that it can pull focus away from the institutional nature of the problems.

But Eric Umansky's incredible, lengthy expose on Trawick's murder for Propublica is a masterclass in how to use individual stories to illuminate, rather than sideline, the systemic nature of the problem.

Umansky humanizes Trawick, bringing him to life for us: a lively, driven, talented ambitious dancer and athlete who burned to run his own dance studio and taught with grace and patience.

Trawick's struggles are likewise illuminated with empathy, illustrated by the people who loved him and lived with him, telling a tale that too many of us know: the story of a brilliant friend or relative whom we fear for and want to help.

And then Umansky uses this sharp-focused person as a spotlight to show how the system failed at every single level, before, during and after the crisis. How the system's self-protective urge means it can NEVER be improved.

How other places have done better, which means that New York could too – which means that New York's situation isn't an inevitability, it's a choice.

Trawick's murder is a stain, but it is grotesquely unexceptional. It is part of a pattern, a string of similar murders.

Umansky's piece puts this tragedy in its proper context: not as an accident of history, but as the inevitable, ongoing outcome of a broken system that New York City's authorities choose ever day not to address.

Section 230 is Good, Actually (permalink)

There's a bipartisan movement to abolish CDA230, the Clinton-era law that makes people liable for their own speech, while simultaneously immunizing tech providers who carry that speech and incentivizing them to moderate it.

On the right, you have trumpy calls for a social media fairness doctrine that would require a platform that removed false claims that masks don't prevent covid transmission to also remove true claims that masks DO work (seriously, wear a fucking mask).

On the left, you have people who claim that CDA230 is corporate welfare, absolving Big Tech companies of the need to hire an (impossibly large) army of moderators to approve everything their users say before it goes live.

The truth is that CDA230 is one of the very few internet regulations that is a serious force for good. Its primary beneficiaries are you and me – members of the public who get to speak without having to host our own webservers, DNS, and CDNs.

To really understand the issue, read Jason Kelley's "Section 230 is Good, Actually," for EFF: a comprehensive guide to CDA230 and the myths around it.

Have you read 230? You should! It's 26 words long!

"No provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider."

Kelley: "the law means that although you are legally responsible for what you say online, if you host or republish other peoples' speech, only those people are legally responsible for what they say."

It really isn't that complicated. It's arguably the most important 26 words in internet history. Without it, there would be no Wikipedia, no Internet Archive, no Patreon, no Github. Security researchers couldn't compare notes on forums.

Parents couldn't organize afterschool activities on public systems. Kickstarter couldn't host project updates with backer Q&A.; Kiss WordPress goodbye. Kiss goodbye your favorite geneology forum and the place where you show off your Warhammer and Blythe doll paints.

All of these forums for speech need CDA230. You know who doesn't? Big platforms. To understand how this works, cast your mind back to the fight over SESTA, a bill that made online forums liable for blocking acts of sex trafficking, a horrific crime.

Sex workers opposed this bill. They said that because platforms couldn't know whether conversations among sex workers or between sex workers and their customers were voluntary or coerced, this would lead to a total shutdown of all forums.

Initially, Big Tech fought SESTA. Then Facebook endorsed it – they, after all, have lots of moderators who could seek-and-destroy sex work conversations, and they have lots of other ways to make money.

Two years later, sex trafficking is untouched, voluntary sex work is more dangerous than ever (which means that pimps finally have a reason to exist again – offering physical security for sex workers who can't use online forums to identify abusive customers).

Many of Facebook's smaller competitors have, of course, disappeared.

SESTA was the first real change to 230 in decades. It's a preview of the likely consequences of the proposed 230 reforms: more power to monopolists whose bad moderation practices will be harder to punish.

Despite this, there is a wealth of disinformation about 230. Kelley tackles the most common shibboleths.

  • Moderation violates the First Amendment

As a matter of law, this is completely wrong. Private actors are not bound by the First Amendment.

That's not to say that there aren't serious speech problems with Big Tech's moderation policies, but these are problems of Big Tech's bigness, not of a lack of fairness.

A fairness doctrine for online speech wouldn't just limit when Facebook or Twitter remove or put warnings on speech – it would mean that a BLM safe-space would have to tolerate white nationalism; and that Parler couldn't kick off people who think Ayn Rand was a sociopath.

  • 230 does not draw a distinction between "publishers" and "platforms." No such distinction exists.

Rather, 230 distinguishes between "offline" and "online" platforms. That's because the public – you and I – can contribute to online publication but not offline ones.

No matter how loudly you shout at your newspaper, it will not be audible to the other subscribers. But newspapers' online editions can be discussed, corrected and disputed by their readers. CDA 230 protects newspapers online editions, too.

  • CDA 230 encourages online publishers to moderate bad speech

Before 230, a US court found that if you moderate at all, you have to moderate everything. The result was that no one wanted to remove even the worst speech because this created unlimited liability for them.

230 changed that, creating a "Good Samaritan" rule that allows moderators to pick off the bad stuff they catch, without holding them liable for the stuff they miss.

230's detractors have a point. Big Tech's moderation sucks. They hold all our friends and content hostage and they do a terrible job of moderating content. But making them double down on stuff they're bad at will only make things worse.

We should fix these real, harmful moderation problems by creating alternatives, not wiping them out by making it impossible to co-exist alongside of Big Tech. If you hate having 90% of your online life inside of Big Tech silos, your really gonna hate when it's 100%.

Antimonopoly work, in other words: break 'em up, block their mergers, mandate interoperability, strip them of the legal power to block interoperators.

And if we do want to mandate good moderation, then use the The Santa Clara Principles On Transparency and Accountability in Content Moderation, which are a good, multistakeholder starting place:

This day in history (permalink)

#5yrsago Fossil fuel divestment sit-in at MIT President’s office hits 10,000,000,000-hour mark

#1yrago Opendemocracy: the Libdems tried to censor our article about their sale of voter data, then used a forged email to intimidate us

#1yrago Second wave Algorithmic Accountability: from “What should algorithms do?” to “Should we use an algorithm?”

#1yrago The south’s latest culinary trend: inadequate, rotting prison food, supplemented by cattle feed

#1yrago FCC Chairman Pai’s former employer, Verizon, lied about coverage, and then Pai tried to bury the news

Colophon (permalink)

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Currently writing: My next novel, "The Lost Cause," a post-GND novel about truth and reconciliation. Yesterday's progress: 517 words (90491 total).

Currently reading: The City We Became, NK Jemisin

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