Pluralistic: 20 Apr 2021

Today's links

Real penalties for covid evicters (permalink)

The CDC's eviction moratorium in an incredibly important piece of public-health law: people facing homelessness may not shelter in place when they're sick, and people who are rendered homeless are at risk of both contracting and spreading covid.

Despite this, many states and cities have treated the moratorium as a suggestion, not a binding law, and, of course, it's hard to get justice when you've just been evicted (the CDC seems to have brought zero enforcement actions against violators).

That's why the latest interim rule from the Consumer Finance Protection Bureau is so important: it affirms the CDC rule and makes many other parties liable for its violation, including, notably, landlords' lawyers and debt collectors.

As Adam Levitin writes for Credit Slips, this is a very big deal indeed, because in addition to expanding liability, it also expands who has a right to seek redress.

Under the CDC rule, only the government could punish evicters, but CFPBs rule come wiht a "private right of action." This means evicted people can seek redress for people who break the law to render them homeless, including lawyers representing lawbreaking landlords.

CFPB rules come under the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act, which also provides for statutory damages, actual damages, attorneys' fees, and class actions.

Levitin: "How many attorneys are going to want to assume this risk to further a foreclosure for a client? I suspect that an informed attorney will be much more inclined to counsel the client to follow the CDC moratorium."

It's a good example of how important a private right of action. It's why private right of action is a major sticking point in proposals for a national privacy law: the commercial surveillance industry does not want you to have recourse to legal self-defense.

Europe's flawed but crucial GDPR includes a private right of action, which is why Digital Rights Ireland is able to bring a mass action lawsuit against Facebook over its 500,000,000-user data-breach.

Without a private right of action, people who've been harmed, even maimed or killed, by corporations have to petition DAs and Attorney Generals to take up their case, while private rights of action allow everyday people to seek justice on their own.

That's why private right of action scares the shit out of corporate lobbyists and why they've spent decades running a disinformation campaign aimed at ending it ("tort reform"), pushing lies like "The McDonald's Coffee Lawsuit."

Private right of action is especially important when it comes to housing. The collapse of the defined-benefits pension system has forced everyday people to gamble in a rigged stock market as a hedge against a starving and homeless retirement.

Many everyday, middle-class Americans rely on their homes as a retirement piggy-bank, which sets up an unresolvable contradiction in American finance policy. To keep home-owners solvent, politicians have to take every possible step to make housing as expensive as possible.

When you put it that way, it's obvious why this is such a bad idea: housing is a human right and a necessity for human thriving. Policies that seek to make housing expensive ("increase property values") are as indefensible as policies to make food as expensive as possible.

So: if you own a house, you get a tax subsidy (a direct way of increasing property values). The tenants you rent it to don't get that subsidy (an indirect means to increase tax as it pushes renters into home ownership, bidding up prices).

Converting the human right to shelter into an asset that is its owner's best hope for a dignified old age distorts all kinds of policy, pushing otherwise decent people to block high-density housing because increasing housing supply decreases the value of their assets.

It sets parents to war against their children, who have to compete for the dwindling supply of available housing, or rent under conditions that favor landlords.

But (as with market-based 401k pensions), the property investment game is rigged in favor of the super-rich, who use "mom-and-pop" investors as human shields for policies that benefit private equity ghouls.

In many places in America, your landlord is almost certainly a Wall Street fund, not a nice old couple who bought "income property" for their retirement.

Wall Street landlords spin rental income into bonds, and secure high ratings for them by turning housing into deadly slums with high payments and low costs, backstopped by evictions, once unheard of in America, now a national (and racist) epidemic.

When you hear about the CDC eviction moratorium, you might picture a retiree renting out the family home after downsizing to a condo. But the median American landlord is a faceless, remorseless Wall Street fund engaged the wholesale destruction of cities and their residents.

America needs lots of housing. To get there, America needs a social safety net, a guarantee of a decent retirement for people who work hard all their lives – not a seat at a table in a rigged stock-market casino, nor a chance to destroy their kids' chances at a decent home.

(Image: "State highway officials moving evicted sharecroppers away from roadside to area between the levee and the Mississippi River, New Madrid County, Missouri", Arthur Rothstein, 1915-1985, Library of Congress)

McDonald's corporate wages war on ice-cream hackers (permalink)

A new feature by Andy Greenberg for Wired on the bizarre fight over diagnostic/control tools for McDonald's soft-serve machines is a fantastic, fascinating look at the intersection of Right to Repair with hardware hacking, corporatism, and franchising.

McDonald's ice-cream machines are notoriously finicky, so much so that people make bots to determine whether your local McD's machines are busted (5-16% of these machines are broken at any time)

A tweet from McDonalds reading we have a joke about our soft serve machine but were worried it wont work

There's a reason these machines go down all the time: they are absurdly mechanically complex, designed to do overnight repastueruizations on leftover ice-cream mix, unlike less complex machines that have to be drained and cleaned every day, at high labor and wastage costs.

There's a tradeoff: the machines are much more complex and finicky. Not only do they fail if the reservoirs are outside of a narrow tolerance, they still have to be disassembled for weekly cleaning, and are much harder to reassemble.

Moreover, that maintenance is performed by McDonald's employees, and thanks to low pay and high turnover, those workers are often both very young and very new to the job. Put it all together and it's easy to see why the machines are busted so often.

But that's not the whole story: it turns out that all of this is vastly exacerbated by the repair-hostile design of the machines. When they do break down, they throw cryptic errors, necessitating an expensive service call.

This means that franchisees pay through the nose when their machines break and they don't get feedback on what they can do differently to prevent more service-calls in the future. The tale of this user-hostility is the crux of Greenberg's piece.

The machines are made by Taylor, a giant kitchen supply company that also supplies things like grills to McDonald's franchises. Their distributors get paid every time they do a service call, and the franchisees are pretty sure McD's is getting a cut.

That's where Kytch comes in. It's a tech startup that spun out of Frobot, a company that built automated enclosures for Taylor's froyo machines that were supposed to eliminate labor costs by creating fully self-serve systems.

Frobot machines proved to be too complex and unreliable for the field, and in the process of outfitting them with diagnostic tools, Frobot's founders created Kytch, a high-powered automation and diagnostic tool that proved to be hugely popular with McDonald's franchisees.

Kytch gave these restaurateurs the ability to monitor and diagnose their $18,000 Taylor C602 machines without having to learn technicians' secret, obscure codes ("Press the cone icon, then tap the snowflake/milkshake buttons to set the screen to 5, then 2, then 3, then 1").

It was a runaway success: franchisees bought the gadgets and paid activation and recurring fees and were glad of it, reporting major cost savings over paying Taylor's service techs and extra profits because they could sell product rather than apologizing for broken machines.

The gadget itself was superbly engineered, thanks, no doubt, to its pedigree: in commercializing the Kytch, its inventors teamed up with legendary hardware hacker and digital freedom fighter Andrew "bunnie" Huang, whose every device is a perfect marvel.

Huang describes Kytch as a huge leap in the control systems for the Taylor machines, which were mired in the "dark ages" of 50-year-old technology. Adding a Raspberry Pi-based controller took the machines from the late mechanical age to the late digital age in one step.

But this reformation met a counter-reformation. McDonald's and Taylor teamed up to crush Kytch. Taylor engaged in all kinds of skullduggery to acquire a Kytch unit and then rolled out a (less capable, more lucrative, more extractive) competitor.

(The company swears it didn't rip off the Kytch and it's all just a huge coincidence, really.)

But the real muscle came from McDonald's, which owns the land underneath each of its franchisees' restaurants and can take away their restaurants at the stroke of a pen.

McDonald's began to traffick in increasingly unhinged scare-memos, warning that Kytch might steal "confidential data" and that it "creates a potential very serious safety risk for the crew or technician attempting to clean or repair the machine."

The memos conclude that this diagnostic and monitoring device could cause "serious human injury" and "McDonald’s strongly recommends that you remove the Kytch device from all machines and discontinue use."

Kytch's founders confide that this will probably kill their business.

It's quite a tale: a clanking, breakdown-prone Rube Goldberg device that's turned into a money-spinner for a giant corporation that values the service charges more than it rues its disappointed customers.

A pair of scrappy inventors and a legendary hardware wizard who transport this gadget half a century forward in one fell swoop – and who get destroyed by the corporate behemoth through a mix of scare-stories about maimed teenage shake-jockeys and eviction threats.

(Image: Gabriela Hasbun/Wired)

This day in history (permalink)

#10yrsago ACLU to Michigan cops: stop searching mobile phones during traffic stops

#10yrsago Before 1988 Olympics, South Korea sent ‘vagrants’ to camps where rape and murder were routine

#5yrsago Colorado school district wants to arm security staff with military-style rifles

#5yrsago UK Chancellor exempts families of “Politically Exposed Persons” from money laundering scrutiny

#5yrsago Volkswagen’s internal Dieselgate probe stuck because the company used code-words for its cheat software

#1yrago 94.5% of "small business" money went to giant corporations

#1yrago Denmark: no bailouts for companies headquartered in tax havens

Colophon (permalink)

Today's top sources: Naked Capitalism (

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