Pluralistic: 28 Jun 2021

Today's links

A powdery residue on a lab-slide.

Podcasting "Qualia" (permalink)

This week on my podcast, I read "Qualia," my May, 2021 Locus Magazine column about quantitative bias, epidemiology, antitrust and drug policy. It's a timely piece, given the six historic antitrust laws that passed the House Judiciary Committee last week:

The pandemic delivered some hard lessons about quantitative bias – that's when you pay attention to the parts of a problem that you can do math on, not because they're the most important, but because you know how to do math.

The most obvious lesson comes from the failure of exposure notification apps, which were supposed to take the place of "shoe-leather" contact tracing, wherein a public health workers establish personal rapport with infected people to help identify others who might be at risk.

Contact tracing is a human process, built on trust: trust enough to talk about the intimate details of your life, trust enough to take advice on how to get tested and whether you should self-isolate.

That's not what apps do.

Exposure notification apps measure whether a Bluetooth device you registered was close to another Bluetooth device for a "clinically significant" period of time.

That's it.

They don't measure qualitative aspects, like whether you were close to an infected person because you were in the same traffic jam in adjacent, sealed automobiles – or whether you were both at the Ft Lauderdale eyeball-licking championship.

And they certainly don't create the personal rapport that's needed to understand each person's idiosyncratic health circumstances and complications – whether they need child care, or are at risk of losing their under-the-table jobs if they self-isolate.

We didn't want to commit the resources to do contact tracing at scale, we didn't know how to automate it – but we did know how to automate exposure notification, so we incinerated the qualitative elements and declared the dubious quantitative residue to be sufficient.

It's the quant's version of searching for your car keys under the lamp-post because it's too dark where you dropped them.

It's not just foolish, it's also deceptive – quantizing qualitative elements is a subjective exercise that produces numbers that seem objective.

This is where antitrust law comes in. Prior to the neoliberal revolution of the Reagan years, antitrust concerned itself with "harmful dominance," with regulators asking whether mergers and commercial practices were bad for the world.

Obviously, "bad for the world" is hard to measure. Regulators evaluated claims from all corners: both political scientists worried about the outsized lobbying power of large companies and workers worried about monopolies' outsized power over wages and conditions got a say.

So did environmentalists, urban planners, and yes, economists, too.

The Chicago School – hard-right conservative economists with cult-like status among Reagan and big business simps – insisted that all this qualitative stuff had to go.

They argued that consideration of qualitative elements left too much up to judges, so two similar companies engaged in similar conduct might get different verdicts out of the antitrust system. This, they said, make a mockery of the notion of "equal treatment before the law."

Instead, the Chicago Boys – led by Robert Bork, a Nixonite criminal and a sort of court sorcerer to Reagan – demanded that qualitative measures be left behind in favor of a purely quantitative analysis of whether a monopoly hurt "consumer welfare."

The way you'd measure "consumer welfare" was by checking to see whether a monopoly was making prices go up – if not, the monopoly was deemed "efficient" and thus socially beneficial. Prices are numbers, numbers can be measured.

But that's not how it worked in practice. When two companies wanted to merge, they could hire a Chicago fixer to construct a mathematical model that "proved" that they resulting megafirm would not raise prices.

No one could argue with this, because Chicago School consultants had a monopoly over building and interpreting these models – the same way court magicians laid exclusive claim to the ability to slaughter an animal and read the future in its guts.

And if the prices did go up? Well, the same Chicago model-makers would be paid to produce a new model to prove that the price-rises were not the result of monopoly, but rather, rising energy costs or higher wages or the moon being in Venus.

Even by their own lights, "consumer welfare" was a failure. Monopolies drive prices up. Amazon Prime is a tool to drive up prices in every store, not just Amazon:

Apple's App Store monopoly drives up app prices:

Luxxotica bought every eyewear brand and every eyewear retailer and the world's largest optical lens manufacturer and drove prices up 1000%:

The highly concentrated pharma industry raises prices every single year:

What's more, there's a straight line from "consumer welfare" to price-fixing.

Think about publishing. A decade ago, the Big Six publishers were embroiled in a bid to force Amazon to raise ebook prices, which led to fines and settlements for harming "consumer welfare."

Today, the Big Six publishers are the Big Four, because Random House, the largest publisher in the world, gobbled up Penguin and Simon & Schuster. When RH, S&S and Penguin were three companies, it was illegal for them to collude on pricing.

But after their mergers, the three former CEOs – now presidents of divisions within an unimaginably giant company – can meet in a board room and plan exactly the same price-fixing strategy, and that isn't illegal under "consumer welfare" antitrust – it's "efficient."

The Chicago School's "consumer welfare" was only ever a front for "shareholder welfare," the ability of large firms to avoid "wasteful competition" and extract an ever-larger share of the take for shareholders at the expense of customers, workers and the public.

The entire business of "consumer welfare" is a fraud, starting with Robert Bork's insistence that a close reading of the US's four major antitrust laws will reveal that they were never intended to be used for any purpose other than consumer welfare protections.

This is manifestly untrue, a Qanon-grade conspiracy that is refuted by the plain language of the statutes, the statements of their sponsors, and the record of the Congressional debates leading to their passage.

Despite the wealth of evidence that US antitrust is not a "consumer welfare" project, neoliberals have insisted that their project was not "reforming" antitrust, but rather, "restoring" it to its original purpose.

It's a Big Lie, and they know it. That's why GOP Senators Mike Lee (UT) and Chuck Grassley (IA) introduced "The TEAM Act to Reform Antitrust Law" – a bill intended to neutralize the muscular new antitrust bills that just passed the House committee.

The bill does two things:

I) It takes antitrust authority away from the FTC, sidelining the incredible Lina Khan, a once-in-a-generation antitrust scholar who now runs the agency; and

II) It codifies "consumer welfare" as the basis for US antitrust law.

That second part is the tell: after 40 years of insisting that any rational reading of US antitrust proved that "consumer welfare" was obviously its sole purpose, they're now introducing a law to change its purpose to "consumer welfare."

Like the Stolen Election lie, they never truly believed this one. The pose of objectivity that quantizing antitrust allowed was never about creating a truly objective standard for competition policy – it was only ever about neutering competition policy.

The thing is, there is a way to integrate both the objective and subjective into policy-making – as was demonstrated by David Nutt's 2008 leadership of the UK's Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs, which established the policy framework for a wide range of drugs.

Nutt's panel of experts rated drugs based on how harmful they were to their users, the users' families, and wider society. This allowed him to sort drugs into three categories:

I. Drugs that were dangerous irrespective of your public health priorities;

II. Drugs that were safe irrespective of your public health priorities; and

III. Drugs whose safety changed based on whether you prioritized the safety of users, families or society.

Those priorities are a political choice, not an empirical finding. Nutt told Parliament that it was their job to establish those subjective priorities, and once they did, he could objectively tell them how to embody them in the rules for each drug.

This is a beautiful example of how the objective and subjective fit together in policy – and the tale of what happened next is a terrible example of how "consumer welfare" hurts us all.

You see, booze is one of the most concentrated industries in the world. The "consumer welfare" standard let booze companies buy one another until just a handful remain – globe-straddling collosii with ample resources to influence policy-makers.

Nutt, an empiricist, reported just as rigorously on the harms of booze – one of the most dangerous drugs in the world – as he did on other drugs. He was fired for refusing to retract his true statement that tobacco and alcohol were more dangerous than many banned drugs.

Thanks to "consumer welfare" antitrust, the alcohol industry is able to choose who its regulators are, and use their political influence – purchased with the excessive profits of a monopolist – to rid themselves of pesky officials who actually pursue objective policy.

You can read the column here:

And here's the podcast episode:

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

And here's a link to my podcast feed:

(Image: OpenStax Chemistry, CC BY))

A tropical beach scene; the white sand bears the shadows of unseen palm trees; among them is the shadow of the Capitol Dome in Washington, DC.

Lazy Congress only schedules 9 days' work this summer (permalink)

Say what you will about Congressional partisan divisions, there's one area of unity: the need for self-care.

That's why the House voted to give itself only 9 days of work between Jul 2 and Sept 19 (the Senate's workaholics will put in 11 days' work out of 75 summer days).

I get it. It's been a tough 18 months. Who isn't tired?

But Congress already works a three-day week (the remaining two days are spent "dialing for dollars," begging rich people for money in exchange for making policy that benefits the wealthy).

The country is already on fire. Delta-variant Covid cases are spiking. Buildings are literally collapsing. The annual, worsening floods and tornadoes and hurricanes are headed our way, and the country's emergency systems are in tatters.

As Ralph Nader writes for Common Dreams, Congress should not be taking any summer recess. We're still in an all-hands-on-deck emergency – the crisis is not behind us. Goofing off now is like taking a nap before you extinguish the mattress fire.

Nader says that Congress's impatience for an easy summer vacation of drinks on donors' yachts explains why the Senate isn't forcing the GOP to actually filibuster badly needed stimulus and infrastructure bills – that could eat into their vacation plans.

Instead, Dems – who hold a majority, no matter how slim – treat filibuster threats, made to the press, as being the same as actual filibusters, turning the Senate into a kind of mannered kabuki, a pretense to lawmaking.

Nader has a call to action for the 500-some reporters who cover Congress: "report these absurdly long AWOLs to the people back home," to get the public to collar their lawmakers and read them the riot act.

"Go back to work – five, six, or seven days if necessary to do your duties. Get serious lawmakers! You hold in trust the sovereign power of the American people. We have given you handsome pay, benefits, perks, services, staff, and a powerfully air-conditioned Capitol to perform your constitutional duties with due deliberation. You must not end up in frantic deadlines legislating with all the sloppy drafting, unintended consequences, and loopholes for greedy commercial interests."

And here's Nader's call to action for the rest of us:

"Let's get going Americans. Call your Senators and Representatives. The switchboard number (open 24/7) for Congress is 202-224-3121. The operators, who have to stay on the job, will steer you to your named Senators and Representatives. Tell your members of Congress to camp out on Capitol Hill. Tell them to earn their pay and respect the power given to them by the people."

This day in history (permalink)

#15yrsago Jim Baen, sf publisher, has passed away

#10yrsago YouTube listens to fraudulent NyanCat takedown notice, drags heels on put-back from creator

#10yrsago Wyoming’s corporation mills manufacture privileged artificial “people” to order

#5yrsago Hope Larson’s “Compass South”: swashbuckling YA graphic novel

#5yrsago Fansmitter: malware that exfiltrates data from airgapped computers by varying the sound of their fans

#5yrsago Healthcare workers prioritize helping people over information security (disaster ensues)

#5yrsago The Olympics are profitable for every host city (that lies about the numbers)

#5yrsago Gun-waving cop who attacked black teenaged girl in her bathing suit faces no charges

#5yrsago Always-on CCTVs with no effective security harnessed into massive, unstoppable botnet

#5yrsago Mississippi state rep tells distraught mom to buy kid’s lifesaving meds ‘with money she earns’

Colophon (permalink)

Today's top sources: Naked Capitalism (, Bruce Schneier (

Currently writing:

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  • A Little Brother short story about remote invigilation. PLANNING

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

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