Pluralistic: 21 Feb 2021

Today's links

K-shaped recovery vs wealth taxes (permalink)

The K-shaped recovery – where the rich got richer and the poor got poorer – wasn't inevitable. It is the outcome of hard lobbying by the investor class to turn on floods of money to the rich, while starving the poor of money, rent-relief and debt-relief.

This has enabled wealthy people to increase their fortunes through asset inflation (STONKS) and financial engineering (buybacks, tax refunds, and bonuses) and cash-transfers (personal LLCs taking in vast PPP loans).

It also drove poor people into unsafe working conditions as the only alternative to homelessness and starvation, which let the rich keep their businesses open and supplied a pool of "essential worker" labor to deliver food and even serve in-person diners.

Thomas Piketty's 2013 CAPITAL IN THE 21ST CENTURY documents how inequality is a self-reinforcing policy: markets drive capital accumulation (that is, they make rich people richer), and capital is mobilized to buy wealth-favoring policies.

But he also documents how unstable this whole arrangement is: for a society to tolerate inequality, there must be a broadly accepted narrative of fairness, some story that explains why the desperately precarious should tolerate the smugly comfortable.

The worse the inequality, the thinner the narrative. As (im)morality plays go, the pandemic is pretty on the nose. The K-shaped recovery saw high mortality among racialized, precarious people, while the wealthy are mostly upset about missing their holidays.

Add to that the iron grip that the wealthy maintain on policy, on relief, insisting that $2,000 checks are beyond our means, pretending that they're not making these claims from the jacuzzis they've filled with free government money.

The status quo will collapse. In Piketty's 1789, that meant guillotines. In Argentina, they're trying for a peaceful resolution: they're taxing wealth. Any fortune of $3.4m faces a one-time Robin Hood tax of 3.5%.

That is to say, they're allocating the tip of the top leg of the K-shaped recovery to the bottom leg.

Bolivia has created a Piketty-compliant annual tax on fortunes of more than $4.3m. Morocco's trying out a one-time tax on vast fortunes.

It's not just the global south: the UK's independent Wealth Tax Commission recommended a one-time levy. Canadian PM Justin Trudeau wants to "tax extreme wealth inequality."

Wealth-tax opponents say that they don't work – that wealth-taxes result in deceptive asset revaluations and offshoring to financial secrecy havens and so become costly boondoggles. But that's an incomplete account of how the situation plays out.

It's more true to say that when a wealth tax is set to pass, the wealthy mobilize their capital to create loopholes in the rules that guarantee these boondoggles.

This is not the inevitable outcome of a wealth-tax. As Gabriel Zucman has demonstrated, it's certainly possible to design effective wealth-taxes.

The investor class demanded a system that squeezed and squeezed, and now we're facing a rupture. The Robin Hood tax advocates are trying to manage an orderly, peaceful transition to a fairer system. The alternative is not business as usual.

Facebook vs Australia (permalink)

There's an old Irish joke whose punchline goes, "If you want to get there, I wouldn't start from here." That's basically how I feel about the so-called Australian "link tax" and Facebook's retaliation.

Let's start with the fact that it's not a link tax – it's a form of arbitrated collective bargaining that's meant to correct an imbalance in negotiating power created by monopolization.

The problem that the system is supposed to ameliorate is that the ad-tech platforms cheat. They lie about the reach of their ads. They lie about the performance of their ads. They rig markets so they can price-gouge. They collude to rig prices.

They design their systems so publishers leak intelligence to them, then they exploit that leakage to gouge the publishers further. It hurts advertisers, readers and publishers, and it's the result of an illegal, collusive, corrupt ad-tech duopoly.

The existence of an advertising duopoly, meanwhile, is the result of lax antitrust enforcement. Facebook and Google were permitted to execute a long string of anticompetitive mergers and acquisitions, producing the hyper-concentrated market we see today.

The obvious remedy to this situation is to break up the monopolies, but that is off the table (for now). 40 years of neoliberal orthodoxy says that monopolies are efficient and breakups don't work, so we're left yanking on other policy levers.

For example, ad-tech pioneered a long, accelerating trend to surveillance. Their reach meant they could gather data on nearly everything that happened online (Facebook Like buttons, Google Analytics). Their capital meant they could strangle privacy laws in the cradle.

Eventually this became too much to bear. The EU passed the GDPR – but without breakups or other explicit antimonopoly measures. The result was that FB/Goog had to look down the back of the sofa for change to pay for compliance.

Meanwhile smaller, EU-based competitors (who were much dirtier than FB/Goog because they needed to behave worse to be economically viable in the cracks left by the duopoly) were driven out of business, handing even more market-power to Googbook.

Which brings me back to Australia. It's undeniable that publishers get ripped off by Googbook. Their ad marketplaces are frauds from top to bottom: fake metrics for fake users seeing fake ads, run on bid-rigging and self-dealing.

Publishers that complain about this get slammed: Googbook uses the fact that they have created anticompetitive, vertically integrated cartels to tie a willingness to submit to crooked ad payments to traffic.

That means that publishers who make a stink about being ripped off – or who take measures to prevent leakage of their internal business data – have their traffic switched off. This is possible because regulators permitted vertical mergers between search/social and ad-tech.

This vertical integration is the source of confusion about whether this is a link-tax. The goal of the regulation is to clean up the ad markets, but Googbook use links as a stick to beat up publishers when they don't submit to corrupt ad practices, so links get implicated.

But the regulation's primary levers are transparency: it forces Googbook to disclose which data it harvests from publishers and how it uses it; it forces Googbook to disclose algorithmic changes that will result in significant changes to ad performance.

Just as importantly, it forbids Googbook from using their search/social business to retaliate against publishers who object to bad practices in their ad-tech units.

At Matt Stoller writes, the idea "is to mimic a healthy market, where there is transparency of data and a robust set of buyers and sellers instead of a few dominant platforms."

The hope/wish is that all this transparency and guarantee of non-retaliation might mean Googbook ending their market corruption so publishers will get a fair price for their ad-inventory. And if they don't, there's an arbitrator who hears both sides and sets prices.

This is how collective bargaining often works – when you have one side of a deal who has all the power (like a big employer) and a diffuse set of actors who lack power (like workers), an arbitrator hears both sides and hands down a deal that's meant to be fairer.

But of course, this isn't a negotiation between workers and employers: it's a bargain between a cartel of news organizations and a search duopoly. That's not ideal! For starters, it means that the government gets to decide who is a "news organization."

That's ripe for abuse. News organizations are expected to report on the government and the government gets to decide whether they are entitled to participate in collective bargaining with Googbook, which could mean the difference between financial viability and bankruptcy.

Remember, one of the problems this system is supposed to resolve is powerful entities (Googbook) using their power to punish news organizations for complaining about their behavior – governments were in that game long before Googbook came into existence.

And there's another problem: the structure of the Australian news market, which is yet another highly concentrated industry, dominated by a rapacious billionaire who uses his power to manipulate politics: Rupert Murdoch.

Murdoch conquered Australian media the same way Googbook conquered the net: through anticompetitive conduct that was waved through by collusive regulators who never met a monopoly they didn't view as efficient.

It's not wrong to say that the only reason this regulation got off the drawing-board is that Murdoch viewed it as a way to shift a few balance-points from Big Tech's side of the ledger to Big Media's side.

Can't we – journalists, readers – hope for something better than being dominated by a different set of giants and praying that the new boss drops a few more crumbs than the old boss?

Goddamned right. The Australian reg tries to get a fair shake for the independent press as well as the Murdoch press, setting out some objective criteria for who is entitled to enter the bargaining unit.

But the fact is that monopolies reproduce themselves. As David Dayen describes in MONOPOLIZED, when a monopoly forms, all the other participants in the supply chain have to monopolize or die.

Big Pharma gets monopolized and squeezes hospitals. Hospitals monopolize to fight back and squeeze insurers. Insurers monopolize and squeeze…us. We're the only ones who don't get to organize to push back.

The people's countermonopolistic entity is the democratic state.

The state's job is to prevent monopolies from forming, and it has failed to do that job for 40 years. Now it's stuck trying to fix the effects of monopoly without fixing monopolies themselves.

40 years ago, we got rid of the idea of fighting monopolies because they corrupted our governments and working lives – we replaced it with the neoliberal idea of "consumer welfare," which held that only "bad" monopolies should face enforcement.

What's a bad monopoly? It's when companies conspire to raise prices. That's why the US government clobbered the Big Six publishers when they leaned on Amazon to stop engaging in predatory ebook pricing.

But while the "consumer welfare" monopoly enforcement is aggressive when two or more companies collude to set prices, it has no problem if those companies merge with one another and then do exactly the same thing.

When the CEOs of two companies conspire to set prices, it's illegal. When they merge their companies and engage in the same conspiracy, it's not. Collective bargaining is out, monopolization is in. That's why the Big Six publishers are now the Big Four.

"If you wanted to get there, I wouldn't start from here." The highly monopolized news sector is mainly controlled by extremist billionaires and private-equity looters. The principal beneficiaries the Australian regulation are part of the problem.

That doesn't change the fact that Googbook are a corrupt, collusive duopoly. It also doesn't change the fact that there are a bunch of indie news-outlets that got to ride on Murdoch's coat-tails in this regulation.

As with the GDPR, the question to ask is whether this will strengthen or weaken monopolists, and there, I think, is some cause for hope. Forcing Googbook to reveal their data-collection and algorithmic practices and prohibiting retaliation is a solid anti-monopoly move.

Likewise, establishing a precedent for inter-industry collective bargaining is a useful harm-reduction measure for dealing with a monopolized market while we muster political will for breakups. It sure beats the alternative of merging every industry into its own monopoly.

It's a confusing issue. Link-taxes are bullshit and they're pro-monopolistic, since big companies can afford them and little ones can't. But this isn't a link tax – the only reason it seems like one is because links are the stick that Googbook beats its supply-chain with.

(Image IPWAI, CC BY-SA, modified)

The Paltrow-Industrial Complex (permalink)

I don't know about you, but I've been worried about Gwyneth Paltrow. We've had the plague for a year and the Paltrow-Industrial Complex hadn't shown up with any kind of wellness grift!

Finally, we can breathe easy. As Beth Mole writes in Ars Technica, Paltrow has finally entered the covid profiteering racket, and she's going big, with a blog entry detailing the many ways you can shop your way out of long covid.

Paltrow's post describes how she suffered covid "early on" and then heroically overcame long covid with chiropractic, a "plant-based" diet that's also fish-based (go fig), $102 worth of vitamins and supplements, and $60 "detox" powder.

These aren't just health advice, of course – they're also products you can buy from Goop or via affiliate links that pay Paltrow a commission. Beyond that, Paltrow recommends hiking with $9,000 worth of specialized gear ($8600 of that is a gold necklace).

As Mole points out, Paltrow also relates how she didn't see results straight away, which implies an answer to what her customers should do if her expensive remedies don't work – buy more and keep trying.

Mole does the lord's work in dogging Paltrow's heels. Not only did she take to time to explain why you shouldn't squirt coffee up your asshole as recommended by Goop:

But she even reviewed Paltrow's unwatchable Netflix show:

This work isn't just unpleasant, it's risky. Speaking as someone who's been threatened by Paltrow's vicious attack-lawyers for criticizing the ultra-wealthy alexjonesian nostrum-peddler, I can only imagine what Mole's inbox looks like.

This day in history (permalink)

#15yrsago Artists paint Detroit’s derelict buildings Tiggeriffic Orange

#15yrsago Copyright office head denounces “big mistake” of extending copyright

#15yrsago Shoes designed for illegal Mexican/US border crossings

#10yrsago America’s Chief Apocalypse Officer, a Fed job ad from 1956

#10yrsago How Anonymous decides: inside the lulz-sausage factory

#10yrsago Overcome information overload by trusting redundancy

#10yrsago Saif Gadaffhi, plagiarist

#10yrsago Gadaffhi Junior’s PhD celebrates “soft power,” democracy

#10yrsago Libya’s UN mission asks world to defend Libyans from Gadaffi

#10yrsago Google App to help locate people in Christchurch quake

#5yrsago Republican Congressmen backed by airline money kill research on legroom and passenger safety

#5yrsago Uber uses customer service reps to push anti-union message to drivers

#1yrago Gopher shows us how adversarial interoperability was there from the start

#1yrago Bloomberg's campaign NDA is a gag order that covers sexual abuse and other crimes

Colophon (permalink)

Today's top sources: Naked Capitalism (

Currently writing:

  • My next novel, "The Lost Cause," a post-GND novel about truth and reconciliation. Friday's progress: 601 words (113076 total).

  • A short story, "Jeffty is Five," for The Last Dangerous Visions. Friday's progress: 258 words (6467 total).

Currently reading: Analogia by George Dyson.

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