Pluralistic: 10 May 2021

Today's links

The Earth, floating in space, with its southern hemisphere in flames; it is being irradiated by a beam-weapon fired by a Death Star-style coronavirus molecule, bearing the Pfizer logo.

Biden's shift on vaccine patents is a Big Deal (permalink)

Last week, Katherine Tai, Biden's US Trade Rep, made history by announcing that the US would support petitions from countries in the Global South for a patent waiver on covid vaccines, which would broaden the world's capacity to produce vaccines.

That's a very important priority. The world's 125 poorest countries have received zero doses, and 85 countries with a population of 2.5b project that they won't be fully vaccinated until 2023 or 24.

Not only will this delay sicken and kill millions of people, it will also incubate new variants, some of which may be able to bypass vaccine-based defenses in the rest of the world.

Cue foolish objections that viruses evolve towards less virulence lest they cause their own extinction. That's not how evolution works. Viruses don't know if a mutation will cause them to eliminate their host organisms and thus commit suicide.

The mechanism that selects against driving a host to extinction is…driving a host to extinction. Yes, that'll certainly show covid who's boss, but it comes at a pretty high cost to host organisms like (checks notes) us.

We need more vaccines, for our own sakes and for the sakes of billions of people in the global south. That much is obvious, but Big Pharma and its allies have consistently briefed against any relaxation of patent restrictions on vaccines.

Despite the vast, long-run public subsidies and the emergency billions the public provided for covid vaccine development, pharma bros have insisted that the only duty they owe to the public is to preserve the profit motive so that future pharma bros will follow their lead.

Pharma monopolists have powerful allies. Bill Gates used his elite philanthropy to kill the Oxford team's plan to make its work publicly available. Instead, they've exclusively licensed it to Astrazeneca.

Hundreds of lobbyists have descended on DC to fight any patent waiver:

Including former progressive Howard Dean, who now pushes the racist lie that poor brown people are too primitive to make vaccines:

But mRNA vaccines are surprising easy and cheap to make. You can see that in the work of independent experts:

But don't take their word for it! Moderna itself says you can scratch-build a production facility in three months:

It's hard to understand how the pharma industry could brief against expanding production of vaccines for the 2.5b poorest people.

Sure, maintaining control means that elite philanthropists and rich governments will eventually pay pharma for the doses they ship to poor countries in 2023/4, but that money comes with a substantial business risk – e.g., vaccine-resistant, civilization-endangering strains.

In his newsletter, Matt Stoller describes pharma's upside: that sub-existential new strains will emerge that fuel the market for annual covid boosters, which pharma CEOs have promised to sell at $175/dose, instead of the $12.50 "pandemic price."

This doesn't mean they're deliberately trying to keep the virus alive so they can sell boosters – rather, it's a cost-benefit analysis that factors in the possible upside of new strains, weighed against the downside of civilizational collapse, and rolls the dice anyway.

This kind of depraved indifference to civilizational risks is par for the course with pharma and ideologues like Gates, who has used his philanthropic work as a tool to destroy public institutions from education to health.

That's a program that Biden has long supported from the senate and in the vice-presidency, so it's small wonder that skeptics are closely reading the statement of support and pointing out potential ways to weasel out of it:

But I'm not as skeptical as they are – not because of any prior faith in Biden, but because of my long experience with the USTR in global IP forums, including my stint at WIPO as an NGO observer to several treaties.

As Stoller points out, this is a nigh-miraculous shift in the USTR's position, absolutely without precedent: "USTR was always the center of corporate power in government. For USTR to go against pharma is truly the world turned upside down."

Pharma is spitting nails over it, lobbying hard in the EU (where the pretense of governmental indepedence from corporate lobbyists is routinely revealed as the same sham as the US version) and trying to scuttle any action.

Meanwhile, Gates and his Foundation have done their own about-face:

which represents as seismic a shift as the USTR's own reversal:

It's really hard to overstate how huge this is. As Stoller writes, "Biden just showed that big pharma, one of the most powerful forces in American and global politics, is not untouchable."


LA traveling toward free public transit (permalink)

Los Angeles has a geometry problem. Multiply the space that even the smallest car occupies by the number of Angelenos who need to get from A-B and you'll see that there's no way that the city is compatible with private vehicles.

Building more highways means clearing more live- and work-space, which pushes everything apart, which makes journeys longer, which requires building more highways…

Sadly for advocates of individual transit solutions, geometry has a socialist bias.

(and no, you can't fix this by putting private vehicles in tunnels, no matter how fast the tunnels are – these are just shitty, inefficient subways that let plutes escape the company of their laboring neighbors during their morning commutes)

Los Angeles actually has one of the world's most extensive public transit systems, but it's not a system that most people use voluntarily. While the subways are fast and efficient, they're not nearly extensive enough.

The bus system is very extensive but it's slow and meandering and lacks the dedicated lanes that the evidence tells us we need if we're going to seriously shift people out of low-capacity private cars and into efficient, speedy buses:

As a result, LA's transit overwhelming serves low-income Angelenos, who don't merely suffer disproportionately from the slow service, but who also face significant drain on their budgets from the $1.75 fare (about $1200/year for regular riders).

The LA system isn't reliant on these fares, either: only 4% of the system's budget comes from fares, and 20% of the money collected in fares is spent enforcing fare-collection (!).

All of this led to activists like the Bus Riders Union to advocate for abolishing fares altogether, and now the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority has published a plan to create "the largest free mass transit system in the world."

As welcome as that plan is, it's far from perfect. It calls for phasing fare-waivers between now and 2023, with free rides for students (from kindergarten to community college) this Aug, expanding to riders earning less than $35k in Jan 2022.

The plan's means-testing might undo it, by excluding people who need it the most: for example, homeless people with no income, no W-2 and no way to prove they qualify; or low-income workers whose lack of English fluency and digital literacy freezes them out of the system.

These aren't hypothetical risks – they're what's already happening in the Metro's existing pandemic low-income fare waivers. There's no reason to think the problems will go away when these emergency programs are institutionalized and made permanent.

Fare waivers are the right thing to do, both as a matter of transitioning LA sustainable transit and to end the racially biased fare-policing practices in the system (20% of Metro riders are Black, but 50% of fare-evasion citations go to Black riders).

It'll also improve the working lives of drivers – 40% of driver assaults stem from fare disputes.

When systems like Kansas City's eliminated fares, they saw increased access for poor people, survivors of domestic violence and veterans.

Feared increases in crime on the system never materialized – nor did the predicted de facto conversion of the system into a homeless shelter.

Transit is a public good, and it is good for the whole public.

(Image: LA WAD, CC BY-NC-SA)

The cover of the paperback edition of 'How to Destroy Surveillance Capitalism,' from Onezero.

How to Destroy Surveillance Capitalism Part 6 (permalink)

This week on my podcast, the sixth part of a seven part serialized reading of my 2020 One Zero book HOW TO DESTROY SURVEILLANCE CAPITALISM, a book arguing that monopoly – not AI-based brainwashing – is the real way that tech controls our behavior.

The book is available in paperback:

and DRM-free ebook :

and my local bookseller, Dark Delicacies, has signed stock that I'll drop by and personalize for you!

Here's the podcast episode:

And here's part one:

And part two:

And part three:

And part four:

And part five:

And here's a direct link to the MP3 (hosting courtesy of the Internet Archive; they'll host your stuff for free, forever):

And here's the RSS feed for my podcast:

This day in history (permalink)

#15yrsago Canada’s New Democratic Party embraces copyfighting musicians

#10yrsago Valente’s Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland…: sweet fairytale, shot through with salty tears — magic!

#10yrsago Beat monopoly prices on one-airline cities with the “phantom city” trick

#10yrsago HOWTO sue telemarketers and keep the stuff they send you without paying for it

#10yrsago Pitiful wages, anti-union policies and corporate welfare to make America competitive with China

#10yrsago Teens and privacy online: why using Facebook doesn’t mean you don’t value privacy

#5yrsago Billionaire Paypal co-founder Peter Thiel will be a California Trump delegate

#5yrsago 300 prominent economists call on world governments to end tax haven secrecy

#5yrsago McClatchy newspapers’ CEO pleased to announce that he’s shipping IT jobs overseas

#5yrsago Peace in Our Time: how publishers, libraries and writers could work together

#5yrsago Too Like the Lightning: intricate worldbuilding, brilliant speculation, gripping storytelling

#5yrsago What’s the best way to distribute numbers on the faces of a D120?

#5yrsago Panama Papers: New Zealand is the go-to money launderer for crooked Latin Americans

#5yrsago Save iTunes: how the W3C’s argument for web-wide DRM would have killed iTunes

#1yrago Pandemic countermeasures from the porn industry

#1yrago Factchecking virologist/conspiracist Judy Mikovits

#1yrago Striking New Orleans garbage collectors replaced with prison labor

#1yrago Probability and pandemics

#1yrago The real Lord of the Flies kids were really nice to each other

#1yrago Flooding Ohio's "work-refusal" snitchline

#1yrago Konstantine Anthony for Burbank City Council

#1yrago Armed Michigan voters escort their state rep to work

Colophon (permalink)

Today's top sources: Naked Capitalism (

Currently writing:

  • A Little Brother short story about pipeline protests. RESEARCH PHASE

  • A short story about consumer data co-ops. PLANNING

  • A Little Brother short story about remote invigilation. PLANNING

  • A nonfiction book about excessive buyer-power in the arts, co-written with Rebecca Giblin, "The Shakedown." FINAL EDITS

  • A post-GND utopian novel, "The Lost Cause." FINISHED

  • A cyberpunk noir thriller novel, "Red Team Blues." FINISHED

Currently reading: Analogia by George Dyson.

Latest podcast: How To Destroy Surveillance Capitalism (Part 06)
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Recent appearances:

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Upcoming books:

  • The Shakedown, with Rebecca Giblin, nonfiction/business/politics, Beacon Press 2022

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