Pluralistic: 08 Jan 2021


Today's links



Competition is Killing Us (permalink)

2020 was a shitty year for most things, but it was a banner year for books about fighting monopolies, and for the fight itself.

It started (in Dec '19) with Matt Stoller's GOLIATH, a massive, comprehensive history of monopolies in America.

https://www.simonandschuster.com/books/Goliath/Matt-Stoller/9781501182891

Then came books like Zephyr Teachout's BREAK 'EM UP, a political thriller that zeroes in on the role monopolies play in today's brutal and terrifying emergencies, from covid to climate:

https://pluralistic.net/2020/07/29/break-em-up/#break-em-up

MONOPOLIES SUCK is Sally Hubbard's action-oriented book on monopolies, drawing on her work with the Open Markets Institute, laying out a practical program you can follow to help create structural changes and end monopolism:

https://pluralistic.net/2020/10/27/peads-r-us/#sally-hubbard

LIBERTY FROM ALL MASTERS comes from Open Markets founder Barry C Lynn; it's the culmination of a lifetime spent fighting monopolies, framing the monopoly problem as a loss of freedom for workers, suppliers and customers trapped by monopolists.

https://us.macmillan.com/books/9781250240620

Over the break, I devoured an important contribution to the literature: COMPETITION IS KILLING US, by Michelle Meagher, an ex-Thatcherite competition lawyer who fought for corporate monopolies until she had a Road to Damascus moment and switched sides.

https://www.penguin.co.uk/books/315/315772/competition-is-killing-us/9780241423011.html

Meagher opens with her conversion experience: as a British Bangladeshi girl, she was swept up in Tory rhetoric about the market's power to bring shared prosperity by rewarding the best among us.

But the 2013 Rana Plaza collapse in Dhaka showed her what the "free market" delivers: a race to the bottom that ends with women who could be Meagher herself, killed by the unbridled corporate quest for profit above all else.

Shaken by the images from Dhaka, Meagher was prompted to reexamine her own faith that markets were efficient forces for improving the world, and her day-job, arguing on behalf of endless, anticompetitive mergers between giant companies.

Her shaken faith was shattered by the scandals that followed, from Cambridge Analytica's crimes to the relentless expansion of dangerous, health-destroying sugary drinks, which the UK government seemed powerless to stop.

COMPETITION IS KILLING US is both an account of how Meagher rebuilt her understanding of markets, law and economics, and a smartly argued, fast-moving history of the neutering of monopoly law, a plot hatched and executed by the Chicago School of neoliberal economists.

These are the "scholars" who argued that monopolies were good, actually, and the only time the government should intervene to block or punish monopolistic conduct in which "consumer harm" (that is, higher prices) could be proved.

This set a nearly impossible bar for antitrust enforcement and moved the debate about monopolies from the democratic realm to the rarefied halls of quantitative economists who would duel with equations to prove or disprove the source of price-hikes.

The Chicago School put competition enforcement in chains. Meagher's book shatters them. First, Meagher enumerates the many ways in which monopoly harms us all – real harms, murderous harms, extinction-event harms – that don't count as "consumer harms."

Second – and just as importantly – Meagher draws on her experience as a UK and US lawyer to describe how the restrictions of "consumer harm" are self-imposed. Neither US, nor UK, nor EU law requires a showing of "consumer harm" before governments can fight monopolies.

Indeed, in many cases, existing anti-monopoly laws DEMAND action on the part of regulators for corporate conduct that the "consumer harm" framework declares to be beneficial.

All of that to say, we don't need Parliament or Congress or the EU to pass new rules to get meaningful anti-monopoly enforcement. Like the Cowardly Lion, the Tin Man and the Scarecrow, our governments have had everything they need to fight monopolies all along.

Someone just needs to point it out to them, to make them take stock of their existing arsenal and then spur them into using it to defend all of us. COMPETITION IS KILLING US ends with a roadmap for this kind of action.
Nominally, this is counsel for political insiders, but it's also ammunition for us activists, the everyday people who've been radicalized by runaway monopolies and the harms they create.

It's a roadmap for winning arguments with the insiders who've presided over the mounting crisis – a proof that this world is neither inevitable nor immutable, but rather, something that we can and must transform.



Predatory lender seeks national bank charter (permalink)

"Partner with us today to build a better tomorrow" – that's the slogan for Oportun, a predatory lender that sued more poor latinx people during the pandemic than any other.

https://www.propublica.org/article/the-loan-company-that-sued-thousands-of-low-income-latinos-during-the-pandemic

The company sued longtime customers who'd spent years in a debt-trap of endless payments and refinancing, customers who lost their jobs and missed some of those payments.

It was just an escalation of business-as-usual for a company that has sued 30 customers a day, every day since May 2016. The company filed 10,000 lawsuits in the first five months of the pandemic. They are among the nation's most litigious lenders.

No wonder. With APRs as high as 66.99%, Oportun has guaranteed that vast numbers of borrowers will fail to meet their payments and end up trapped in the company's lawsuit factory.

Now they want to go national. The company – which operates in 12 states today – has applied for a nationwide banking charter. But thanks to reporting from Propublica and the Texas Tribune, they may not get it.

https://www.propublica.org/article/a-lender-sued-thousands-of-lower-income-latinos-during-the-pandemic-now-it-wants-to-be-a-national-bank

40+ consumer rights and latinx groups cosigned a letter to the Office of the Comptroller objecting to Oportun's application. Among the signatories is Unidos US, who partnered with Oportun as recently as 2019.

https://beta.documentcloud.org/documents/20442556-coalition-letter

Oportun promises to draw down its campaign of legal terror against victims of its predatory lending, but that's too little, too late. For the sake of the 10,000+ covid-impoverished families they terrorized at the pandemic's height, they should be shut down, not expanded.

(Image: Gan Khoon Lay, CC BY, modified)



Militarizing cops was a failure (permalink)

In 1997, the Clinton administration created the "1033" program, whereby the Pentagon gave away its "surplus" equipment to local law enforcement agencies, leading to the nationwide militarization of America's cops.

In the decades since, 1033 became a $5B industry: beltway bandits lobby their pals in the DoD to place massive orders for weapons and materiel which are immediately declared "surplus" and transfered to undertrained cops nationwide.

https://www.cnbc.com/2020/07/09/why-police-pay-nothing-for-military-equipment.html

Opponents of this program hypothesized that it would obey Checkhov's Law: "A machine-gun in the police armory in Act One will go off by Act Three. And then again, and again, and again."

They were right.

Empirical studies show that cops who get milspec penis surrogates through 1033 murder the fuck out of the people who pay their salaries.

https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1177/2053168017712885

But 1033's defenders insisted (without any evidence) that turning Deputy Dawg into a USMC Fallujah Street Patrol Cosplayer seriously improved the quality of US policing.

They were wrong.

The Pentagon Inspector General's September 30, 2020 report on the program is definitive: "firearms and tools … were not supporting law enforcement activities."

https://www.dodig.mil/reports.html/Article/2367955/audit-of-excess-property-issued-through-the-department-of-defense-law-enforceme/

What's more, they have a pretty good idea why these "tools" weren't helping law enforcement: they were handed out like candy without regard to need, without training, without supervision, and without accountability.

They gave out a lot of stuff. Snow camouflage pants. Grenades. MRAPs. Assault rifles. And they gave 'em to everyone: local cops. Park rangers. Campus police.

https://www.muckrock.com/news/archives/2014/aug/15/we-have-pentagon-1033-program-data/

Here's some specifics of the giveaways:

  • 391 fixed-wing aircraft and helicopters

  • 2,885 Humvees

  • 1,105 Mine Resistant Ambush Protected vehicles

  • More than 75,000 firearms

There's a lot of subtext in the IG's report, as Thom Dunn points out on Boing Boing: for example, they lavish a lot of attention on the Selmer, TN police department, which filed 1912 requests for military gear.

All in all, the Selmer PD received:

  • 77 pairs of cold weather boots

  • 58 digital cameras

  • 115 hammers

  • 154 screwdrivers

  • 106 tape measures

  • 15 aircraft maintenance tool kits

  • 38 laptops

  • 4 dump trucks

Number of officers employed by the Selmer Police Department: 18.

Why did Selmer need one dump truck for every 4.5 officers? It didn't. "The official requested extra LESO property and stored it in case of a future need because it was free."

But even that didn't work out.

"Selmer PD requested and obtained 30 generators between 2013 and 2017 for use in the event of a disaster, but the generators are no longer available for use. The LEA official stated that some generators were not maintained and their condition deteriorated over time."

Selmer's cops said yes to whatever was on offer. Other PDs got seriously strapped:

  • Alpena County MI Sheriff: 30 M16 rifles for 16 officers

  • Meigs County TN, Sheriff: 25 M16 rifles for 18 officers

  • Massillon OH PD: 49 M16 rifles and 49 M1911 pistols for 44 officers

1033 came to nationwide attention during the Ferguson uprising, when the country boggled at the cops' bizarre, militarized presence in the streets. In the years since, attention has waxed and waned.

But police militarization demands sustained attention. The cops didn't get full battle-rattle by accident. It was a deliberate strategy, with a name and an office…and a business model. It's time to end it.



This day in history (permalink)

#15yrsago Hollywood’s Canadian MP claims she’s no dirtier than the rest https://web.archive.org/web/20060906162414/http://www.michaelgeist.ca/index.php?option=com_content&task;=view&id;=1063&Itemid;=89⊄=

#15yrsago John McDaid’s brilliant sf story Keyboard Practice free online https://web.archive.org/web/20060111055353/http://www.sfsite.com/fsf/fiction/jm01.htm

#5yrsago Gene Luen Yang’s inaugural speech as National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature https://memex.craphound.com/2016/01/08/gene-luen-yangs-inaugural-speech-as-national-ambassador-for-young-peoples-literature/

#1yrago A Public Service: a comprehensive, comprehensible guide to leaking documents to journalists and public service groups without getting caught https://memex.craphound.com/2020/01/08/a-public-service-a-comprehensive-comprehensible-guide-to-leaking-documents-to-journalists-and-public-service-groups-without-getting-caught/

#1yrago Three years after the W3C approved a DRM standard, it’s no longer possible to make a functional indie browser https://blog.samuelmaddock.com/posts/the-end-of-indie-web-browsers/



Colophon (permalink)

Today's top sources: Boing Boing (https://boingboing.net/).

Currently writing: My next novel, "The Lost Cause," a post-GND novel about truth and reconciliation. Yesterday's progress: 573 words (96805 total).

Currently reading: Analogia by George Dyson.

Latest podcast: Someone Comes to Town, Someone Leaves Town (part 26) https://craphound.com/news/2020/12/14/someone-comes-to-town-someone-leaves-town-part-26/

-tickets-132831910821">https://www.eventbrite.com/e/william-gibson-cory-doctorow-agency-tickets-132831910821

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