Pluralistic: 19 Jun 2021

Today's links

A slab of astroturf sprouting a sign reading 'Uber.'

The gig economy's dark-money, astroturf "community groups" (permalink)

When CA's Proposition 22 passed in 2020, it killed the right of gig workers to unionize and it permanently enshrined the practice of worker misclassification: pretending employees are independent contractors, not entitled to health care, overtime, pensions or basic protections.

Uber, Lyft and other "gig" companies spent $205m to pass the ballot initiative, almost as much as was spent on every legislative race in the state – it was the most expensive ballot initiative in American history.

That money was accompanied by some powerful endorsements, including the California NAACP, which struck many observers as deeply strange, given that the most exploited workers in the gig economy are Black.

The situation became clearer when we learned that $95k was funneled to a "consultancy" run by CA NAACP chair Alice Huffman to help sell Prop 22. Huffman resigned shortly thereafter, on news that her firm raked in $1.7m to "consult" on ballot initiatives in 2020.

A new investigative story in The Markup by Dara Kerr and Maddy Varner reveals a vast corporate dark-money operation that spent millions to make Uber and Lyft seem like paragons of racial justice.

They reveal over 30 orgs from communities of color that took donations from Uber and Lyft's PACs and subsequently came out against state and city initiatives to ban worker misclassification and secure benefits and protections for precarious workers.

These orgs published op-eds endorsing worker misclassification as a way for "independent workers to stay independent," placing them in respected Black papers like the Chicago Crusader, Latinx papers like El Dia, and mainstream papers.

Many of these op-eds were identical, not marked as press releases, and with no disclosure of the financial relationship between the gig companies they defended and the organizations who convinced the papers to run the "editorials" (some ran anonymously, without bylines).

More remarkable than the orgs that have taken Uber and Lyft's money and then joined their "coalitions" are groups that were added to these coalitions without ever agreeing to do so, like Groundwork Buffalo, PUSH Buffalo, Open Buffalo, and Coalition for Economic Justice.

These campaigns are orchestrated by PR firms like Hilltop Public Solutions, who boast of their "grasstops solutions” that help “clients inject their voices into local policy debates."

This kind of Orwellian language is shot through the pro-misclassification campaigns, which are styled as "protecting worker independence" (independence from health care, workplace safety, a minimum wage, a pension…)

It's hard to overstate how corrosive this is, how it discredits the hard work of community groups and plays into cheap cynicism.

I've worked for a nonprofit off and on for 20 years and I've lost track of the number of people who've called us "shills" because sometimes the principles we fight for align with the actions of companies and we support them.

The fact that we also fight them – sue them! – when they don't live up to those principles gets missed out, creating a cheap, cynical discourse that demoralizes the public and activists alike.

One of history's most wicked acts of political genius came from Vladislav Surkov, who designed Putin's comms strategy. Surkov cheerfully admitted that he had set up and created some of the anti-Putin opposition groups and funded them – but never said which groups were fakes.

Surkov created a situation where no one knew if they were among committed activists – or just a patsy for a false-front group. It's a scorched earth tactic, one that demolishes the possibility of genuine social movements.

That's the Lyft/Uber playbook: not just to create the appearance that the workers they prey on enjoy it – but to annihilate the possibility that any community group will be taken seriously.

The cover of the paperback of Atlas Shrugged, with the statue of Atlas removed and replaced by Mickey Mouse.

The doctrine of dynastic wealth (permalink)

The biggest news story of the moment Propublica's reporting on the Secret IRS Files, a trove of leaked tax data on the wealthiest people in America that show that they pay effectively no tax, through perfectly legal means.

The Bootlicker-Industrial Complex has completely missed the point of this reporting and its followup, like the revelation that an ultrarich candidate for Manhattan DA was able to pay no tax in many years where her family booked millions in revenue.

The apologists for super-rich tax-evaders lean heavily on the fact that America has a tax-code that substantially reduces the spending power (and thus political power) of people who work for a living, while enhancing the wealth of those who own things for a living.

The rich are obeying the law, so there is nothing wrong here. But what Propublica documented is that America has a different set of laws for the super-rich than for the merely rich, and that these laws are in a wholly different universe from the laws for the rest of us.

It's another example of America's unequal justice system – a subject that includes long prison sentences for crack possession and wrist-slaps for powder cocaine, long jail terms created by the cash bail system, and a host of other race- and class-based inequities.

It's more proof, in other words, that America isn't a republic where we are all equal before the law, but rather a caste system where inherited privileges determine how the law binds you, how it punishes you and how it protects you.

One person well-poised to describe how this system perpetuates itself is Abigail Disney, granddaughter of Roy Disney and great-niece of Walt Disney, inheritor of a vast family fortune shielded from tax by a generation-skipping trust contrived solely to avoid taxation.

Writing in The Atlantic, the heiress describes how she was inducted and indoctrinated into the system of American dynastic wealth, surrounded by brilliant accountants who treated their exotic financial vehicles as completely ordinary.

Personally, these financial enablers were "decent, good, kind men," and they gave Disney 40 years' worth of gospel about protecting the capital, growing it, and passing it on to the next generation.

As a credible 21 year old, Disney had no frame of reference. The creation of a dynastic, ever-growing fortune through legal but frankly bizarre accounting fictions was treated as normal.

To the extent that these tactics raised any doubts, they were addressed through doctrine: the idea that government bureaucrats can't be trusted to spend money wisely.

Disney doesn't say this, but a common trope in these discussions is that the government is ever tempted to give money to poor people, and must be protected from this impulse.

This racism and classism are dressed up as "meritocracy" – the tautology that the rich are worthy, the worthy are rich, and anyone who isn't rich is therefore unworthy.

In the first generation, this doctrine is merely sociopathic, but when passed on to a new generation, it is eugenic. Walt and Roy demonstrated their worth by founding a studio and navigating it through the challenges of the market, and that is why the market made them rich.

But their children – and grandchildren – didn't get their wealth by founding or running a studio. They got their wealth by emerging from the correct orifice. If their wealth is deserved, those deserts are a matter of blood, not toil.

In other words, they were born to be rich, not just as a matter of sound tax planning, but as a matter of genetic destiny. They are part of a hereditary meritocracy.

Disney describes what it's like to be indoctrinated into the hereditary meritocracy: her family told her that the appearance of philanthropy is good, but actually giving money to poor people is a foolish enterprise, "unseemly and performative."

And they urged her to marry her own class, "to save yourself from the complexity and conflict that come with a broad gulf in income, assets, and, therefore, power." Power should be in the hands of "successful" people, because they know how to wield it.

Accept this ideology and you will be showered with wonderful gifts: like private jet trips, which quickly become necessities ("once you’ve flown private, wild horses will never drag you through a public airport terminal again").

It's a subject that is well-documented in Mike Mechanic's 2021 book JACKPOT, on the daily lives, dysfunctions, and above all, ideology of the super-rich:

As to the seductiveness of the ideology, I had my own experience with the "decent, good, kind" professionals of the finance sector. When I moved to London in 2003, I opened a checking account at Barclays, a giant high-street bank.

I quickly discovered that part of Barclays' legendary profitability came from understaffing its branches; when I had to see a teller, I could end up waiting in line for an hour.

When I complained about this, a teller told me that for a nominal annual sum, I could get a "premier" account that came with a host of benefits, including priority tellers. I signed up and was inducted into the premiership by my branch manager.

He asked me if I needed any help with tax preparation, and boy did I ever. I was filing tax returns in Canada, the US, California, and the UK – it was a mess: not just expensive but confusing, and I couldn't make heads or tails of the paperwork.

A week later, a very smartly turned out Barclays "tax specialist" came by the academic research center where I'd borrowed a desk to meet with me. She was wildly excited to discover that I was on a work visa and not a UK citizen.

She told me that this made me eligible to become a "non-dom" – someone living in the UK, but not "domiciled" there – and therefore not subject to any tax at all.

She laid out a whole plan for me: I could establish residence in one of the Channel Islands (Jersey, I think?), incorporate a shell company there, and continue to get free health care from the NHS, use the public roads, etc – all without paying a penny to HM Exchequer.

And when I was ready to buy a house, the whole thing would only get better: I could buy it through the shell company, reverse-mortgage it, rent it to myself, take fabulous deductions on the way, and pass it on tax-free by transfering the shell company rather than the house.

It was dizzying, and I kept asking her to go back and explain it again. She assured me that it was legal and normal, what every non-Briton living in the UK should do, and really poured the pressure on.

It was weirdly spellbinding, like a wizard was demonstrating an interdimensional portal to me and asking if I wanted to go through it to a magical land – a magical land that "everyone else" was already visiting on the reg.

I told her I'd think about it. Five minutes after she left the office, I snapped out of the trance. I never called her back. I figured out my UK taxes.

But today, reading Disney's account of having reasonable-seeming, friendly experts tell you something bizarre and indefensible is normal, I was powerfully reminded of my own brush with the dynasty-creation industry.

This day in history (permalink)

#20yrsago Scott McCloud on Napster, “piracy” and micropayments

#15yrsago Flickr: we’ll give full access to competitors – if they reciprocate

#10yrsago ICANN votes to roll out 400-800 new generic top-level domains

#10yrsago KFC: support diabetes research by buying an 800 calorie, 56 spoonful of sugar “Mega Jug”

#5yrsago Homeless in Seattle: five essays

#5yrsago W3C DRM working group chairman vetoes work on protecting security researchers and competition

#1yrago Microsoft criticizes Apple's monopolism

#1yrago Trump wants to dismantle the OTF

#1yrago This is the EU's interoperability moment

Colophon (permalink)

Today's top sources: Julia Angwin (, Fipi Lele.

Currently writing:

  • Spill, a Little Brother short story about pipeline protests. Wednesday's progress: 272 words (6274 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)
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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