Pluralistic: 13 Apr 2021

Today's links

Jackpot (permalink)

JACKPOT is the debut book-length work from Michael Mechanic, the senior editor at Mother Jones. It's a pitiless – but empathic – look at the lives of the (mostly) American super-rich.

The sociology of wealth is an odd paradox. On the one hand, many of the wealthiest people are celebrities (both in the sense that celebrities are wealthy, and that wealth creates celebrity). On the other, plutes don't usually unburden themselves to social scientists.

By contrast, we know an awful lot about college kids (because they're easy for university-affiliated researchers to study) and poor people (who need the pitiful budgets available to researchers to compensate their subjects).

The wealthy produce accounts of themselves, of course – through publicists and reputation management firms and vicious attack lawyers who send bowel-loosening threats to journalists who criticize them (I've gotten these from multiple billionaires, including the Sacklers).

So with Jackpot, Mechanic has set himself a heroic – and, frankly – impossible task: to find out what life is truly like for the wealthy. Mechanic is a first-class investigative journalist and manages to pry loose many tales from the enablers of the ultra-rich.

Shrinks, lawyers, PAs, managers, personal bankers, exclusive private school administrators, and those who offer services like one-of-a-kind status cars or ridiculous private-jet/private-island safaris.

He also talks to several people who "hit the jackpot" – lottery winners, unexpected inheritors, and so on. And he manages to talk to a few of the stratospherically wealthy people: lucky dotcommies, the odd VC, even a few hereditary plutes.

The picture of obscene wealth that emerges is…obscene. Yes, there are some genuine perks of ultrawealth – if every kid got the kind of education that they give out in exclusive, $50k/year private schools, the world would be a far better place.

But the rest of it – the transactional relationships, the paranoia and fear, the greed, the lavish goods, the rootless pingponging from one home to another, the feuding, ruined offspring, the constant preoccuptation with accumulation… It's ghastly. Legitimately horrible.

Now, it's possible that this is all sampling bias. Maybe somewhere in the system are dynastic fortunes of people whose money makes them happy, but if so, none of them wanted to boast about it to Mechanic, and none of them were procuring the services of Mechanic's sources.

I don't think so. From where I sit, it sure seems likely that the corrupt, rotten system that the wealthy have created and make worse by the day is only making them absolutely miserable – depressed birds in diamond-crusted, gilded cages.

In the back half of the book, Mechanic documents this corruption with a Mother Jones editor's eye, the way that their wealth isn't just their misery – it's our misery, too. It's a system that serves no one.

Reading about the weird excesses of the super-rich was fun, then it was astonishing ,then it was depressing, and finally, enraging. I imagine that a plute reading the book might end up in the same place – but I wonder if they'd do anything about it.

Bill Gates will kill us all (permalink)

2.5b people in Earth's 130 poorest countries have not been vaccinated. The 85 poorest countries won't be vaccinated until 2023. The humanitarian cost is unforgivable – and self-defeating, as each infected person is a potential source of new strains.

How the actual fuck did this happen?

What happened to the early pledges by governments, the WHO, public health experts and leading research institutions to create global cooperation in vaccine development, eschewing patents and secrecy so that we could rescue our species?

That dream was smashed.

Many people helped create our vaccine apartheid, the single individual who did the most to get us here is Bill Gates, through his highly ideological "philanthropic" foundation, which exists to push his pitiless doctrine of unfettered monopoly.

It was Gates who sabotaged the WHO Covid-19 Technology Access Pool (C-TAP), replacing it with his failed ACT-Accelerator, a system of patents and secrecy and vast profits for the pharma industry, ornamented with nonbinding, failed promises of access for poor nations.

It was Gates who convinced Oxford to renege on its promise of patent-free access to its publicly funded vaccine research for the global south in favor of exclusive patent access for Astrazeneca.

When we hear ghoul sellouts like Howard Dean pushing the racist, genocidal lie that "patents don't matter" because brown people in poor countries can't make vaccines, we're hearing Gates's talking points:

Gates's role in vaccine apartheid is laid out in exquisite detail in Alexander Zaitchik's outstanding New Republic feature, which delves into Gates's longstanding project to sideline democratic governments and cooperation in favor of monopoly tyranny.

This goes way, way back. I mean, waaaay back, all the way to 1976, when Gates wrote his infamous "Open Letter to Hobbyists," decrying the dominant, cooperative mode of software development and calling its practitioners thieves.

Gates's fortune depended on creating a software monopoly, and that monopoly required "intellectual property" protection. Gates has always been a monopolist, and so naturally, he loves IP (before "IP" was a common term, copyrights and patents were called "monopolies").

Intellectual property is a very important part of the inequality story, the story of how we got to a world where billions of people are denied vaccines and where all people face new, more virulent strains as a result.

As UNCTAD chief economist Richard Kozul-Wright told Lynn Fries for GPE: "[IP allows companies] to grab a larger share of what has already been produced in the economy."

It's a means of extracting rents, not for doing things, but for owning things.

IP is key to tax avoidance: companies like Ikea transfer "IP" (the Ikea trademark) to a numbered company in a tax haven; each national Ikea subsidiary pays "licensing fees" for the trademark equal to 100% of their in-country profits, so they never earn a (taxable) cent.

The transformation of the world into a monopolized system of IP-heavy, rent-extracting, tax-dodging companies really kicked into gear after 1999, with the signing of the WTO agreement and its IP adjunct, the TRIPPS, and as Zaitchik details, Gates was instrumental there.

For this part of the story, Zaitchik talks to Jamie Love, who was at the UN when NGOs like his were pushing to create vaccine and other pharma pools for the global south, while pharma companies handed out pamphlets bearing the Gates Foundation logo, smearing the plan.

Though the US delegation struggled for credibility, the combination of the Gates Foundation, and former US trade officials fronting for the global pharma industry managed to sideline the project, which was being driven by the demand for equitable access to AIDS drugs.

With Gates's help, the WTO emerged as an IP enforcement powerhouse. Zaitchik cites Dylan Mohan Gray: "it took Washington 40 years to threaten apartheid South Africa with sanctions and less than four to threaten the post-apartheid Mandela government over AIDS drugs."

Incredibly, the Gates Foundation used this to burnish its humanitarian image: they solicited donations from pharma companies and used them to subsidize AIDS drugs in the global south, a maneuver that let them seem like philanthropists.

When in reality, they had overseen a program to systematically deny the world's poorest and most threatened people the right to make their own drugs, making them dependent on the whims of multinational corporate charity instead.

Sound familiar? Today, Gates runs around repeating the lie that poor people can't make their own medicine, saying that patent exemptions won't make a difference now – to the extent he's right, the world now is the crucial one.

Having sabotaged the efforts by poor countries to engage in the kind of production ramp-up the rich world saw as vaccines were being developed, it may now be too late. "Because of my bad ideas then, it's too late now."

The connection between IP and elite philanthropy is deep and important. IP's rent-seeking and tax-dodging has made poor countries beholden to offshore monopolists in health, agriculture and IT, and then starved them of taxes to build up domestic alternatives.

This, in turn, makes them dependent on "gifts" from the billionaires who arm-twisted them into IP treaties, forced them to pay rent on all domestic production, and then profit-shifted the funds out of the reach of their tax-collectors.

As Anand Giridharadas reminded us in his seminal "Winners Take All," the core purpose of elite philanthropy has been the same since the robber-baron era: to burnish the reputations of monsters who take everything and give back crumbs.

Reading Jamie Love's quotes in Zaitchik's article reminded me of my own time working with Jamie and Knowledge Ecology International at WIPO in Geneva, when I was an NGO delegate to a global DRM treaty.

You see, at WIPO, the vast majority of NGOs aren't human rights organizations or other public interest groups – they're industry associations representing tech, entertainment, broadcast and pharma monopolists.

These guys – almost all guys – were just aghast when real NGOs started showing up for these meetings and were absolutely shameless in their sabotage of our efforts to balance their corporate lies (absolutely bald-faced lies were routinely entered into the debates).

How petty? Well, they had been accustomed to writing up "fact-sheets" for the day's debate and handing them off to WIPO staffers working for the secretariat, who would photocopy them and set them out on literature tables for the national delegates.

So we started doing this too: we'd take careful notes on the day's debates, convene with global experts to debunk industry association lies, get our Indymedia friends to translate them into six languages, and hand them off to the secretariat in the morning for copying.

So they got the secretariat – a former US textiles negotiator who made her bones helping create the conditions for slave labor in places like Bangladesh – to end the practice of photocopying papers for all NGOs.

Of course the industry bodies had cushy offices in Geneva, whereas we stayed in flophouses and youth hostels. They could ask their underlings to come in early and do their copying for them, whereas we had to take a bus to the all-night copy-shop to get our handouts copied.

Here's where it gets super-weird: our handouts started to go missing. We'd set out our stacks of paper on the literature tables before the morning session and an hour later, they'd all be gone, but none of the delegates had managed to get a copy.

We found those missing handouts…in the garbage, behind potted plants and in the toilets.

No, seriously.

And here's the kicker: during the ensuing furore, the main response from the pharma lobbyists was to object to us calling ourselves "public interest NGOs."

I'll never forget this smarmy sociopath in his expensive suit, with his shit-eating grin, standing there saying, "Phamaceuticals serve the public interest, and our industry association is a nonprofit. We are a non-profit, public-interest NGO."

It was a remarkable sight. 20 years later, their version of the public interest – the doctrine of Gates – has produced a multi-billion-person reservoir of the sick and vulnerable who are doomed to serve as factories for highly virulent variants.

This is a literally genocidal doctrine, and it threatens our very civilization. It's a funny kind of non-profit, public interest move for an industry and its billionaire ideologue funders to have made.

But hey, at least no one's "intellectual property" took a hit.

What "IP" means (permalink)

Today, Project Reboot pubished "Unfair Use," an updated version of "IP," my September 2020 column for Locus Magazine, which I consider to be the most important piece I have written in my 13 years as a Locus columnist.

In the article, I describe how the copyleft/commons/floss world has spent decades fighting a losing battle to get people to stop saying "IP," on the grounds that copyright, trademark and patents aren't property, nor are they similar enough to group them under a single banner.

Instead, copyfighters insist that people either refer to specific laws ("copyright," "trademark," etc), or, if these disparate concepts must be grouped, let them be referred to using the original term-of-art, "authors' monopolies" or "creators' monopolies."

Now, working artists get understandably upset at being called monopolists. In competition law, monopolists are entities whose market power lets them set prices – I have a copyright in these words I'm typing now, but I can't force anyone to pay me for them.

But last summer, I had something of a revelation. When you attune yourself to how businesses use "IP," it has a very crisp meaning: "IP is anything that lets me control the conduct of my competitors, customers and critics."

Anti-circumvention law is IP because it lets companies decide who can sell software for the devices they make – you can't buy software from your phone which you own without permission from its manufacturer, even if the person who made the software wants to sell it to you.

This is a very odd form of "author's monopoly" – a world in which authors and their audiences are legally prohibited from doing business with one another unless they get permission from a "market-power" monopolist.

That's how IP gives its owners control over customers and competitors – but this control also extends to critics.

The First Amendment guarantees US speakers the broad right to disclose true facts.

But terms-of-service, anti-circumvention and other "IP" are routinely used to silence security researchers who discover defects in products, so that true, factual disclosures that inform customers about the risks they face from defective products can be literally felonized.

IP gives businesses control over competitors, critics and customers – and it gives monopolists an even more important power: the power to maintain and expand monopolies without risking antitrust enforcement.

Antitrust law has been in a doldrums for 40 years, ever since Ronald Reagan shot it in the guts, but one thing that rouses even our somnambulant antitrust enforces from hibernation is action that is explicitly in furtherance of the maintenance of monopoly.

That is, if you have a monopoly because your products sell better than other peoples', you're pretty safe. But if you owe your monopoly to activities that you specifically undertook to secure and expand a monopoly, you're in trouble.

Mark Zuckerberg got his company into SERIOUS trouble by admitting in writing that he wanted to buy Instagram in order to reduce his users' ability to escape Facebook's surveillance (Instagram was attracting millions of ex-Facebook users).

But if Zuckerberg used IP to shut down Instagram – say, enforcing a patent against them, or using confidentiality and noncompete agreements to block his key employees from jumping ship – the US government wouldn't punish him, it would help him.

When you combine an "author's monopoly" with a "market-power monopoly," you get a terrifyingly effective hybrid: a monopoly that the government will fight to preserve, not fight to break up.

What's more, IP is interpenetrating the fabric of our lives (or, if you prefer, "software is eating the world"). Every IoT device with software in it can be configured so that software gives IP protection – over customers, critics and competitors.

All of this to say that rather than fighting to end use of the term "IP," we should instead make explicit its latent meaning: the monopolistic and nightmarish ability to control critics, customers and competitors.

Data-brokerages vs the world (permalink)

When I give talks about surveillance in Silicon Valley, techies will say, "Well, I don't care if Google gets my data to show me better ads, but the NSA is full of low-IQ sociopaths who couldn't get a job in tech."

When I speak in the Beltway, govies say, "I don't care about Uncle Sam gathering data on me – the USG already knows all about me. But those grifters in Silicon Valley would sell their mothers for a nickel."

What neither gets is that private surveillance is public surveillance – and vice-versa. Why do governments exercise forbearance in regulating the obviously harmful, toxic surveillance industry? Because they rely on raiding private data to do mass surveillance on a budget.

Today in Wired, Justin Sherman explains how this works in exquisite detail in "Data Brokers Are a Threat to Democracy," a piece on the vast, shadowy private data brokerage industry.

These companies – Acxiom, CoreLogic, and Epsilon – have deep dossiers on billions of people, segmented in categories like "Rural and Barely Making It" and "Ethnic Second-City Strugglers." Sometimes, they're also tech companies – Oracle owns 80 data-brokerages!

These huge data-troves are raided by stalkers and spies, used to target people illegally based on race, religion and sexual orientation, and are also critical to US government surveillance.

As Sherman points out, there's not much sense in getting worked up about Americans' data going to China because they're on Tiktok when that same data – and more – is for sale in a vast, sleazy, unregulated smorgasbord.

This day in history (permalink)

#15yrsago NOLA mayoral candidate uses photo of Disneyland New Orleans Square

#10yrsago Historical first look into the Fed’s bailout payments reveals breathtaking multi-trillion-dollar corruption

#5yrsago How corporate America’s lobbying budget surpassed the combined Senate and Congress budget

#5yrsago Panama Papers reveal offshore companies were bagmen for the world’s spies

#5yrsago Panama Papers: Mossack Fonseca law offices raided by Panama authorities

#5yrsago Piracy dooms motion picture industry to yet another record-breaking box-office year

Colophon (permalink)

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