Pluralistic: 07 Jun 2021

Today's links

A Ronald Reagan ad for Chesterfield cigarettes, extolling the brand as 'mild' and 'my favorite.'

Podcasting "I Quit" (permalink)

This week on my podcast, I read "I Quit," a column I wrote for Medium that connects the dots between smoking cessation, tobacco denial, climate inaction, and anti-maskers.

Specifically, it's about how the cancer denial playbook has been iterated and sharpened by successive generation of corporate murderers and their enablers in the Paltrow-Industrial Complex.

The goal of science deniers isn't necessarily to convince you that covid isn't real, or that vaccines are bad for you, or that privacy is overrated, or that there isn't a climate emergency – their goal is to convince you that these things just can't be known for sure.

It's a form of weaponized skepticism and it has deep roots, going all the way back (at least) to Darrell Huff's famous HOW TO LIE WITH STATISTICS a book I held in high esteem…

Until I read Tim Harford's brilliant THE DATA DETECTIVE and learned that Huff was a paid shill for Big Tobacco and his major motive wasn't to debunk bad stats, it was to obscure the link between tobacco use and cancer.

When I quit smoking 17 years ago, a wise doctor counselled me that if I was going to resist cravings, I needed a more immediate reason than "I won't get cancer in 40 years." My answer: "I spend two laptops per year on a product whose makers want to murder me and my friends."

More importantly: "These companies invented the science denial techniques that are on track to render my species extinct."

I wrote this column at the urging of my friend Matthew Rimmer, in honor of #worldnotobaccoday2021.

It's never too late to quit smoking. See your doctor. And if you want a catchy, profane anthem to see you through the hard times, check out Allen Ginsburg's incredible "Put Down Your Cigarette Rag (Don't Smoke)."

Here's the podcast episode:

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 my podcast feed:

The Statue of Liberty on whose shoulder perches a trustbuster-era editorial cartoon image of Roosevelt, swinging a club.

New York to revolutionize antitrust (permalink)

The New York legislature is about to take up SB933, an historically significant antitrust bill that is poised to reverse decades of monopolism by repudiating the destructive, corporate-power enhancing, deceptively named "consumer welfare" principle.

40 years ago, Ronald Reagan adopted the "consumer welfare" standard, a fringe idea pushed by Nixon's crooked solicitor general Robert Bork in an influential book called "The Antitrust Paradox" (Reagan's successors, Republican and Democrat, have all bolstered Borkism).

Prior to "consumer welfare," the US government prosecuted monopolies because they created unaccountable concentrations of power, allowing a few ultra-wealthy executives to decide how we worked and lived, corrupting politicians and breaking laws with impunity.

Bork insisted that "your business is too powerful" was too squishy and subjective a basis for law-enforcement, and insisted that we should make trustbusters empirically prove a) that harm had occurred; and b) that it was due to monopoly power.

This may sound reasonable, but it was a stalking horse for ending antitrust enforcement altogether. Bork's "empiricism" meant that trustbusters would need to demonstrate "consumer harm" (in the form of higher prices) and prove that the harms were due to monopoly.

This effectively ended antitrust enforcement. The standard for proving a merger would result in higher prices, (or post-merger price-hikes were the result of monopoly) was to build and interpret a complex, esoteric mathematical model than only Bork and his cronies understood.

Unsurprisingly, the models always affirmed that a merger would be efficient, not harmful – and that post-merger harms were not the fault of the merger. Big business loved Bork, and spent lavishly to promote his theories.

40% of federal judges attended the Manne Seminars – swanky junkets that "educated" the judiciary on Bork's theories.

Borkism's elevation of "consumer welfare" didn't just end antitrust enforcement – it shifted our societal priorities.

When monopolies were about corporate power, it meant that everyone who suffered from excessive corporate power had a legitimate stake in antitrust policy: people poisoned by pollution or hurt by corrupt laws won by the lobbying power of concentrated industries.

What's more, the focus on "consumer harm" denied our power and duty as citizens. A "consumer" is an ambulatory wallet who "votes" by buying things (the fatter the wallet, the more votes you get!). A citizen is someone who has a stake in their society.

Delcaring antitrust's stakeholders to be "consumers" and "businesses" excluded a key constituency: workers, who are particularly vulnerable because labor markets are far more sensitive to "buyer power" (fewer employers) than consumers are to "seller power" (fewer retailers).

"Monopsony" (market control arising from few buyers) occurs far sooner than "monopoly" (control from few sellers). We see this around us right now, with Amazon's slave-labor conditions for delivery drivers pushing down wages and worsening work conditions across the sector.

Every "consumer" is also a "worker" (with the notable exception of "investors" – the tiny minority that makes it living by owning things, rather than doing things), which means that any consideration of "consumer welfare" that ignores workers' rights is bad for consumers.

Which is why "consumer welfare" created a world of spiralling labor precarity, environmental devastation, political corruption, and pervasive cynicism about politics and the ability of democracies to craft and enforce good policy.

Enter New York's SB933, introduced in the wake of the Amazon HQ2 fiasco, where the company tried to shake down cities and states for massive subsidies and exemptions from labor and other regulation.

Amazon pulled out of NYC when activists and politicians dared to question the wisdom of giving this wildly profitable monopolist a massive subsidy that would lead to the destruction of local businesses and skyrocketing housing prices.

Today in his BIG newsletter, Matt Stoller interviews NY's Senator Mike Gianaris, who introduced SB933, which explicitly broadens the basis for antitrust enforcement to include curbing unaccountable corporate power and protecting workers.

As Stoller and Gianaris point out, there's nothing radical about considering a broader range of harms when enforcing against monopolies: "harmful dominance" was the longstanding American legal tradition, spread to Europe after WWII.

Borkism was a radical break with tradition, and SB933 restores antitrust to the muscular suite of protections we enjoyed before Reagan.

"Harmful dominance" means that monopolists will no longer get to set the terms for their own regulation. For example, it sidelines the often farcical debate over "market definition" ("which market is the monopolist accused of dominating?") which is incredibly easy to game.

For example, when Facebook bought Instagram, it claimed that the acquisition wasn't about buying up a nascent social media competitor to whom Facebook was losing millions of users – rather, it claimed that Insta was a camera app.

And since every phone comes with a camera app, FB's merger with Insta would give it an unmeasurably tiny share of the camera app market.

This sophistry isn't unusual in antitrust debates. To see it in action, check out this debate between Tim Wu and Tyler Cowan:

Wu claims that Facebook has a social media monopoly – meaning that it dominates, sets prices and terms for social media. Cowan counters that the relevant market isn't "social media" but rather every way that people socialize: SMSes, phone calls, dating apps, etc.

And, of course, by that measure, FB controls very little of "social" (Amazon makes the same argument when it defines its market as "every retail transaction"). "Consumer welfare" invites this kind of absurdity – while "harmful dominance" sweeps it aside.

If you are a New Yorker, you can and should contact your state rep to support SB933. State lawmakers are very sensitive to constituent emails! You can look up your lawmaker here:

The Statue of Liberty, on whose breast is an 'I Voted?' sticker.

New York to revolutionize voting (permalink)

Back in Feb, I published a Washington Post op-ed about the disgraceful legal threats and smears ES&S – the voting machine monopolist – had thrown at SMART, NY activists who lobby for election security and against unaccountable voting machines.

For years, orgs like SMART argued that the defect-riddled machines from the likes of ES&S were a threat to US election integrity, not just because they were hackable, but because this made it easy for scoundrels to push a bad-faith narrative of a stolen election.

Of course, this is exactly what happened, with Trump and his cult taking up a baseless narrative that Dominion Systems' (terrible) voting machines had been used to steal the election. Far from being chastened by this democracy-destabilizing moment, ES&S seized upon it.

ES&S lumped SMART's accurate, measured warnings about its flagship Expressvote XL machines in with Trump's unhinged claims about Dominon's machines, hoping that the general public wouldn't know enough about the specifics to tell the difference.

That is, ES&S was tacitly colluding with Trump to making voting machines a culture war bullshit topic, turning the years of selfless, well-informed, highly technical scholarship on the dangers of voting machines into a marker of unhinged conspiratorialism.

Despite legal threats from a vicious monopolist, SMART didn't give up. Their bravery is paying off. The NY Senate will take up SB309A, a voting machine bill to ban "hybrid" machines that mark and count ballots, among other election integrity measures.

The bill also prohibits counting non-human-readable ballot marks like QR codes and bar codes insisting that any automated ballot tally count up the same marks that a human recount would rely upon.

SB309A mirrors the language of federal laws like the SAFE Act and PAVE Act, which were struck down after massive, coordinated lobbying campaigns by the voting machine industry.

And SB309A has the support of the nation's foremost election security experts, led by Princeton's Andrew Appel.

Despite what Trump and voting machine profiteers would have you believe, election integrity is not conspiratorial culture war bullshit. Between Bush v Gore and 2020, we ignored the warnings of security researchers – and now we're paying the price.

Passing SB309A would mark a turning point for sound, evidence-based election security, and make New York State the leader in sound elections.

A field of glowing fiber optics, surmounted by the 'peeing Calvin' image, his face replaced with the Charter-Spectrum logo, such that Charter-Calvin is pissing all over fiber optics.

Competition tames ISPs (permalink)

Broadband policy isn't the most important policy question we face, but it is in many ways the most foundational one. The lockdown showed us that good broadband is key to civics, politics, education, health, family life, romance, and employment.

Unfortunately for America, governments have treated broadband as a glorified video-on-demand service (at best) and a pornography distribution system (at worst).

American lawmakers sat idly by as cable and phone companies divided up the nation into non-competing territories, leaving Americans with some of the slowest broadband at the highest prices in the country.

To the extent that they treated this as a problem, the "solutions" they offered were all predicated on the idea that monopoly telecom profits should take precedence over fast, reasonably priced, universal access to broadband.

Rather than breakups, or merger scrutiny, or municipal fiber, US lawmakers and regulators offered industry subsidies, tax breaks, deregulation – and state bans on cities offering municipal broadband, even in places that the monopoly carriers refused to serve.

Implicit – and often explicit – in this failure was the theory that the cable and phone companies were terrible because the industry was Just Hard and America Is Different, and that the terrible state of affairs had nothing to do with monopoly.

A post by Stop the Cap reveals the hollowness of this proposition, showing that people who live on opposite sides of the street can see $40/month difference in their broadband bills, based on whether Spectrum has to compete for their business.

Beyond monthly rates, the post breaks down a whole string of ripoffs that Charter visits upon its monopoly customers, like $200 installation fees – while someone a block away pays only $50.

When Ars Technica called Charter on this, the company responded that its pricing is "affected by several factors, including 'location.'" Uh, yeah – because people in some locations have options, while others don't.

Obviously, this is no surprise. When Frontier went bankrupt in 2020, its mandated disclosures confirmed that the company's internal accounting treated the 1m people who had no alternative as an "asset" because they'd pay more and settle for less.

As Karl Bode writes on Techdirt, the cable operators' use of "contract length, promotional rates, and fees" obfuscates some of the ways that monopoly gets exploited, the truth isn't that hard to see.

But maybe the lockdown will reverse American complacency on broadband monopoly. Biden's FCC Chair Jessica Rosenworcel has issued a public call for your horror stories about your experience with broadband.

And in California, Gavin Newsom has proposed a well-funded, comprehensive, universal fiber rollout that deserves your support:

(Image: Maik, CC BY, modified)

This day in history (permalink)

#15yrsago Recording industry: Search-by-artist is “too interactive”

#15yrsago Private Infringer: fanfic based on Captain Copyright

#10yrsago Macedonia erupts after young man beaten to death by special police in public square

#5yrsago Samantha Bee interviews Frank Schaeffer, who helped create the religious right

#5yrsago Uber loves competition, when it’s the one doing the competing

#5yrsago You are not a wallet: complaining considered helpful

Colophon (permalink)

Today's top sources: Lulu Friesdat (, Naked Capitalism (, Matthew Rimmer

Currently writing:

  • Spill, a Little Brother short story about pipeline protests. Friday's progress: 259 words (4191 words total).

  • 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)
Upcoming appearances:

Recent appearances:

Latest book:

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