Pluralistic: 26 Jun 2021

Today's links

A frame from EFF's 'Overlapping Infrastructure of Urban Surveillance' graphic, depicting a person on a city street, being spied on by a drone, a satellite, a wifi node, a cellular tower, a police officer and a storefront sensor.

The Overlapping Infrastructure of Urban Surveillance (permalink)

From traffic-cams to mobile device tracking to social media spying and beyond, the urban landscape has quietly become a locus of ubiquitous surveillance, without any meaningful debate, let alone democratic oversight or consent.

EFF's 'Overlapping Infrastructure of Urban Surveillance,' which depicts a cross-section of urban surveillance from low-Earth orbit (satellites) to the deep sea (underwater fiber cables).

"The Overlapping Infrastructure of Urban Surveillance, and How to Fix It" is a superb, long-ass infographic from EFF's Matthew Guariglia, depicting a cross-section of urban surveillance, from the satellites in low-Earth orbit to the deep-sea cable taps.

It's part of EFF's Street-Level Surveillance project, "A Guide to Law Enforcement Spying Technology," and each of the levels of surveillance identified in the graphic has a corresponding explanation and action plan.

Included: satellites, internet traffic surveillance, cell tower surveillance, drones, social media surveillance, cameras, cellphone surveillance, license plate cameras, shotspotters, CCTVs, electronic monitoring anklets, police GPS tracking and international net surveillance.

EFF works on all of this both on its own and through the effective local activism of the Electronic Frontier Alliance, a national network of autonomous groups that work on things like forcing local cops to get approval for new surveillance tools.

The IRS building in Washington DC, superimposed with an IRS welcome sign and a French engraving a man operating a guillotine.

How Peter Thiel gamed the Roth IRA for tax-free billions (permalink)

The Propublica Secret IRS Files is a large tranche of IRS leaks detailing the tax-structures of the super-wealthy, documenting the ways in which Leona Helmsley was perfectly correct to assert that "taxes are for the little people."

The latest reporting examines the way that Peter Thiel and other billionaires are able to abuse the Roth IRA (a savings vehicle that is only supposed to be used by middle-class people to save modest sums for retirement) to evade taxes on billions..

The Roth IRA is named for William Roth Jr, a Reaganite anti-tax-extremist GOP Delaware Senator who brokered a new retirement savings tool with the Clinton administration in 1997, a tool that was supposed to allow middle-class savings without giving tax-breaks to the wealthy.

People with middle-class incomes can put away assets worth modest sums – $2000/year initially – in a savings account, pay tax on them at their current value, and then park them until retirement, cashing them out tax-free.

So you can put $2,000 after-tax dollars' worth of stocks in your IRA when you're 30, and then sell the stocks for $10,000 when you're 59 and a half and avoid the 20% capital gains tax you'd normally owe on the $8,000 profit.

The Roth IRA framework makes the whole thing sound like a middle-class affair. Medium-wage earners can salt away small-dollar bets on stocks, bonds and other assets, and avoid tax on successful bets when they're ready to retire.

But the wealthy immediately discovered exploitable loopholes in these guard-rails. When Theil – already rich but not yet ultrawealthy – cofounded Paypal, he was able to draw only a nominal wage, while taking the bulk of his compensation in stock.

Drawing a peppercorn wage made the millionaire hedge-fund manager Peter Thiel a "middle-class earner" for the purposes of the Roth IRA. That meant he could put away $2,000 worth of assets and pay no tax on their appreciation when he turned 59 and a half.

The asset Thiel bought for $2,000 and stashed in his IRA? Paypal stock. A lot of Paypal stock. Thiel and his partners declared Paypal's stock to be worth $0.001/share, which meant Thiel could shelter 1.7 million shares in his Roth IRA.

Today, those shares are worth $5 billion, and Thiel can draw them at 59 and a half without paying any tax on them – neither the ~40% tax that he'd pay if they were income, nor the 20% sweetheart capital gains rate the IRS gives to people who earn money by gambling, not working.

Defenders of the Roth IRA – and the tax-free lifestyles of US billionaires – insist that these tax "strategies" are available to rich and poor alike, but an examination of the Thiel story reveals a different system for the super rich, the merely rich, and the rest of us.

Yes, it's true that on paper anyone in Thiel's positions could do what Thiel did. But as Anatole France said more than a century ago, "The law, in its majestic equality, forbids rich and poor alike to sleep under bridges, to beg in the streets, and to steal their bread."

Most of us can't found a company and not draw a salary while still paying our bills, taking stock-based compensation instead, thus receiving most of our income as tax-advantaged capital gains instead of wages.

Even if you're in that lucky few, most of us can't afford to hire fixers who will – with a straight face – sign off on a valuation of the stock in a business that had already received large cash investments at $0.001 (Propublica's tax experts all but call this a fraud).

Thiel was able to sell some of the Paypal shares in his Roth IRA and then use the money to buy sweetheart-priced shares in Facebook (on whose board he sits) as well as in Palantir, the human-rights-abuses-as-a-service company he founded.

Thiel has been very public in his contempt for taxes, characterizing them as class warfare waged on the rich by unworthy governments. Thiel says his anti-tax extremism is just part of his deep ideological commitment to libertarianism, but that's a very selective commitment.

What are we to make of a libertarian who founds a company to supply governments with secret surveillance tools, who secretly funds a pretextual lawsuit to bankrupt journalists who upset him, who says "competition is for losers," and women shouldn't be allowed to vote?

While "the marketplace of ideas," universal self-determination and limits on coercive state power are not part of Thiel's libertarianism, avoiding taxes on the fortunes he makes are firmly within its remit.

In this regard, Thiel is firmly aligned with other billionaires, including advocates for fairer taxes, like Warren Buffet. Indeed, Justin Elliott, Patricia Callahan and James Bandler identify several billionaires who have evaded taxes on titanic sums by gaming the Roth IRA.

One thing that distinguishes Thiel from other plutes, though, is his willingness to scold the rest of us, as he did when he told us mortals to "save, save, save…Forgo the new kitchen and sundeck…“Living modestly and saving well is better than dying broke."

(Image: Joshua Doubek, CC BY-SA)

'Slums. Washington, D.C.' Carl Mydans, 1935, Farm Security Administration — Office of War Information Photograph Collection (Library of Congress).

New York City's 100 worst landlords (permalink)

Treating shelter – a human right and necessity that sits just above food on the hierarchy of needs – as a commodity inevitably pits the creation and maintenance of wealth against the survival of the people for whom a home is a place to live, not an asset.

American prosperity has historically come from two sources – intergenerational wealth accumulation through family homes; and gains made by organized labor that increased wages and improved working conditions.

Both kinds of mobility were unevenly distributed on racial lines, but of the two, the more universal was always labor protections, not extreme measures to increase property prices. For 40 years, we've been whittling away at labor rights and going all in on property prices.

Convincing middle-class people to accept extreme measures to drive up the prices of housing (and thus the value of their single major asset) rather than labor rights – including adequate pensions, affordable education, and universal health care – was a clever gambit.

It split working people, convincing those who'd bought their homes with their labor gains to betray the next generation of workers, in the name of defending their kids' futures, which were riding on huge gains from property prices, not employment.

But the people best poised to benefit from soaring property prices weren't family homeowners – they were super-rich property speculators, who used the army of middle-class simps for "investors" to dismantle eviction and rent protections while gobbling up whole neighborhoods.

This is particularly visible in NYC, where speculators use rent-gouging and the savings of slum conditions to extract high profits that can be used to stave off legal consequences for their criminal conduct, in the market with the second-highest rents in the country.

NYC documentary filmmaker Jeff Seal investigates this phenomenon with enormous humor and substance in "This is New York City's Worst Landlord," a three-part, 60-minute Youtube documentary.

Seal's goal is to meet all 100 of the 100 worst landlords in NYC, as determined by the city's public advocate watchlist, an annual leaderboard that names and shames the individuals who hold thousands of families' peace and prosperity in their hands.

But the point of the doc is that none of these people can be found. As the tenants of their buildings can tell you, neither they nor their property managers answer the phone – not when the ceiling caves in, not when vermin run across your sleeping child.

They hide behind LLCs and get their mail at anonymous private mailboxes. They own dozens of real, solid buildings but are themselves as immaterial as ghosts. Seal takes it upon himself to track them down.

He holds a telethon where he and his friends call all 100 landlords. He speaks to their tenants. He stakes out their PO boxes. He crashes their offices, doorsteps them, tries to hand out trophies and plaques commemorating their top-scoring performances as terrible landlords.

He does all this and more, like going undercover at a landlord convention where a contractor promises him that they can run jackhammers until any rent-control tenants move out, and a landlord explains how he harasses tenants' rights organizers.

They call the cops on him, high-powered lawyers threaten him – like a housing advocate's version of Roger and Me. The movie ends with the pandemic, the looming eviction crisis, and groundbreaking NY tenant protection laws voted in despite Cuomo's advocacy for landlords.

The eviction moratorium is about to expire. When it does, a bomb will go off for families – a bomb that destroys their homes, sends them to live in their cars or shelters or on sofas, slipping into a situation few escape.

Seal is very funny, and incandescently angry, and the story he tells couldn't be more timely. It's a hell of a way to spend an hour.

(Image: Carl Mydans, 1935, Farm Security Administration — Office of War Information Photograph Collection (Library of Congress))

This day in history (permalink)

#10yrsago TSA asked 95 year old woman in a wheelchair in terminal stage of leukemia to remove adult diaper for pat-down

#5yrsago The blacker a city is, the more it fines its residents (especially black ones)

#5yrsago Australian educational contractor warns of wifi, vaccination danger to “gifted” kids’ “extra neurological connections”">

#5yrsago Beyond “solutionism”: what role can technology play in solving deep social problems

#1yrago Splash Mountain to purge Song of the South

#1yrago Talking Job Guarantee with Pavlina Tcherneva

Colophon (permalink)

Today's top sources: Waxy (

Currently writing:

  • Spill, a Little Brother short story about pipeline protests. Wednesday's progress: 251 words (7056 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.

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

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