Pluralistic: 18 Oct 2021

Today's links

The John Deere logo; the deer in it is inverted with a red 'X' over his eye; in the background is a faded image of striking workers at a factory gate.

Corporatism made John Deere ripe for a strike (permalink)

The 10,000 workers striking John Deere represent the tension between Stein's Law ("trends that can't continue won't") and Keynes's "The market can remain irrational longer than you can remain solvent."

Deere has been a cursed hot mess for years, but somehow trundled on.

Until it stopped.

From Deere's management's perspective, this must come as a hell of a shock. They've relentlessly hollowed out their company, shafted their workers, and screwed farmers and the profits just kept piling up. What's not to love?

The reality is that Deere was accumulating the kinds of non-monetary debts that mount in secret and default in public – like slowly eroding foundations beneath a glass-and-steel office tower that rot in secret until the whole thing pitches over.

Today on Naked Capitalism, Yves Smith catalogs those debts:

  • Just-in-time management

  • Technologically micromanaged workers

  • Unrealistic timetables

  • Reduced staffing and demanding workers take up the slack

Or, as commenter TroyIA put it: "Everything John Deere did to increase its stock price is now a liability."

  • Squeezing workers means it's no longer paying a competitive wage

  • Outsourcing everything put them at the mercy of suppliers and supply-chain disruptions

  • Lean manufacturing eliminated any hope of adapting to changing circumstances, with extra floorspace considered "inefficient" so there's no room for new machinery

Deere has used every trick in the book to squeeze its workers, but the tricks stop working eventually ("trends that can't continue won't"). Take the company's tow-tier pensions.

Like many large employers, Deere drove a wedge in its workforce by keeping senior workers' pensions intact while whittling away younger workers pension plans – if you were hired after 1997, Deere claws back 2/3 of your pension. If you were hired last year, you get no pension.

The problem for Deere is that it has loyal workers, and many of the young employees getting fucked on their pensions are the children of those older workers whose pensions were preserved in order to turn the workers against each other.

For those older workers, divide-and-rule doesn't work – maybe they'd throw hypothetical strangers who haven't been hired yet under the tractor, but they're not going to sacrifice their own children.

Deere's other trickery left it vulnerable to strikers: its outsourcing mania means that if Deere shuts down, its suppliers are going to have to start laying off their workers (as will its customers), creating anti-Deere constituencies who'll urge a settlement.

Deere management is very good at preserving its bezzle ("the magic interval when a confidence trickster knows he has the money he has appropriated but the victim does not yet understand that he has lost it").

Arguably, it's their core competency. They managed to convince legislators that farmers shouldn't be able to fix their own tools – a tradition that goes back at least to the invention of the plow.

And they convinced the Washington Post to credulously repeat the lie that it pays its employees $60k/year:

In reality, it's $40k:

But "trends that can't continue won't" and every bezzle finally breaks, all debts come due, and Deere is royally fucked.

And it's not just Deere. This is Striketober, and the country is experiencing an "unofficial general strike":

Hence all the talk about the changing nature of labor markets, or as Smith puts it, "The press has been agog with spectacle of supposedly all-powerful employers no longer holding the whip hand."

An appreciable slice of corporate America is in this boat, because 40 years of neoliberal hollowing out ("staying irrational") has finally reached its breaking point ("can't continue – won't").

Consider Violet Wanderers spectacular thread on labor shortages in food production. They describe how the over-optimization (that is, hollowing out) of their employer and its supply chain have hamstrung them.

Their over-optimized factories can't get more machines, and have nowhere to put them, so workers have to run mandatory overtime, driving them to quit, putting more pressure on the remaining workers, who then quit.

The decision to only keep a couple days' stock around ("lean manufacturing") means that small disruptions snowball to catastrophe. Not having spare machines or parts means that a broken machine can't be fixed until supply chains get moving – six months from now.

As Smith writes, this isn't going to be easy to fix: "It isn’t simply that the perceived profit requirements argue against it. It would require multiple coordinated operational changes. It’s unlikely that current management could execute them successfully even if they bought into their necessity. And screwing up on an exercise like that could be a death sentence for the operation."

The flag of India, with a ball-gag superimposed on it; centered in the ball-gag is a US flag altered to replace the stars with a copyright symbol.

Copyfraudster censors investigation of implausible covid gadget (permalink)

The internet is full of garbage, some of it dangerous, some of it odious, much of it illegal. It's hard to get garbage removed – I've basically given up on going after commercial pirate editions of my short stories on Amazon:

(Though I wish Google would stop ranking these stupid rip-off pirate editions higher than the free online copies or my commercial short story collections):

As bad as the internet's garbage problem is, the traditional solution – "Notice and Takedown" where you send an email to a webhost claiming some kind of badness and they automatically nuke whatever you're complaining about – is far worse.

That's because Notice and Takedown is so easy to abuse, which means that if you're a purveyor of internet garbage, you can use it to shut down your critics.

Take the "Shycocan" (Scalene Hypercharge Corona Canon) – a gadget that purports to be able to "attenuate" and "disable" "up to 99.9% of viruses." Which would be great, if it wasn't grounded in pseudoscientific nonsense.

Last spring, the Indian news site The Wire published an excellent scientific breakdown of the Shycocan, even as more credulous outlets like the Times of India were credulously regurgitating the company's press releases.

After talking to experts like the head of physics at the Indian Institute of Space Science and Technology and a condensed matter physicist at the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research, Wire's Anusha Krishnan makes a compelling case that Shycocan can't do what it claims.

Like any good journalist, Krishnan gave Shycocan the chance to answer the queries raised by her reporting, but they didn't reply. Then, seven weeks later, they sent a long statement that wasn't responsive to Krishnan's reporting, and The Wire declined to run it.

That could have ended it, but then earlier this month, a pseudonymous person sent a fraudulent copyright takedown notice to Amazon Web Services, the webhost for The Wire.

The copyright complaint points to a blog-post that was supposedly infringed by Krishnan's writing. In reality, this blog post was created after Krishnan's report went up, and then back-dated so it looked like it was the original.

Now, this ruse isn't exactly difficult to see through – The Wire's editor has an entire Google Doc with a dated edit history showing how the allegedly copied phrases were composed.

The problem is, Amazon's copyright division isn't a courtroom and it doesn't have judges

It has distracted, low-level, low-wage employees who follow a procedure, and the companies that pull these back-dated copyfraud scams know that they can evade that procedure.

In his editorial on the censorship bid, Wire science editor Vasudevan Mukunth describes the Kafkaesque process of being an Indian news editor trying to convince a nameless email-answerer at a vast American corporation that they're being suckered.

It's pretty clear that no one at Amazon has actually grasped what's going on or what's at stake – and of course, to make things worse, Amazon is a primary retailer for the Shycocan, so they have a conflict of interest here.

This is not an anomaly. There's a whole shadowy industry of "reputation management" fraudsters who offer content removal as a service, using scams like this one to allow the people who make internet garbage to silence the people who fight internet garbage.

That's the totally foreseeable outcome of a system of censorship based on an anonymous complainant's pinky-swear promise that their copyright has been violated. That's why speedy takedown isn't a way to fight internet garbage – it's a way to multiply it.

Which is fucked up news, because takedown is expanding: Canada, the EU, France, Germany, Australia and the UK have all got existing or planned "harmful content" rules that let anyone point at anything and have it removed, just by crying "hate speech" or "harassment."

Existing takedown regimes are already being abused at scale by reputation launderers who work for torturers, murderers and thieves.

The EU GDPR's "right to be forgotten" rule has spawned an industry that helps criminals purge the internet of the testimony of their victims and the evidence of their crimes:

When America or Europe create expansive takedown regimes, they are effectively global – the Big Tech platforms are American and they can't afford to flout EU rules, so bad actors in every country can exploit their rules to censor their critics.

This is consequential – perhaps even a matter of life or death. After all, the Shycocan claims that it protects you from contracting a potentially lethal illness; relying on an ineffective measure in that case could be literally lethal.

The cover of Atlas Shrugged; Atlas has been replaced by a gold-colored version of MAD Magazine's Alfred E Neuman, shrugging.

At last, a new Econ 101 textbook (permalink)

Neoclassical economics is a hell of a drug. It has no theory of prices, no account of inflation, and its models all presume the existence of a perfectly rational "homo economicus" who is a "utility maximizer" with perfect information.

Even the Queen is wise to the scam, grilling Bank of England economists over their profession's failure to spot the Great Financial Crisis:

The profession is wild. It's full of hired guns who use complex models to "prove" obvious nonsense, like the idea that allowing the meat-packing industry to dwindle to four firms who destroy ranchers' livelihood while jacking up prices is "efficient."

Economists' greatest trick was to subordinate politics to their abstract, disconnect, esoteric "models" – neat collections of equations that, time and again, lead us into global crises that immiserate billions.

Anyone who suggests that this is not a great way to run a society is shouted down by a chorus of politicians who insist that doing good things for people is a fool's errand, because it contradicts the "science" of economics.

How is it possible that a coterie of self-appointed court sorcerers to the world's governments manage to keep their jobs despite being regularly, predictably, and catastrophically wrong?

Much of the blame can be laid at the feet of the standard economics education, the Econ 101 courses that every member of the professional and managerial class has to pass, irrespective of what major they're enrolled in.

These courses are taught from standard texts, like "Principles of Economics" ("markets are usually a good way to organize economic activity"), "Macroeconomics" ("markets move toward equilibrium").

Overall, the message of these texts is "the economy is about interactions in competitive markets (a positive statement) that function pretty well (a normative one) and in which governments ought not to meddle."

The fact that these texts have been widely adopted gives them a huge advantage, and their publishers have maximized that advantage by hiking prices, so these books now sell for $150-200. And that may be their downfall.

Samuel Bowles and Wendy Carlin have produced an free, open access alternative to the standard Econ texts. It's called "The Economy." It's great. It's free. Its mission? "Teach economics as if the last thirty years had happened."

As Nick Romeo writes at The New Yorker, Bowles and Carlin's text is the anchor in a new initiative called CORE: Curriculum Open-Access Resources in Economics, and it's spreading: half of UK universities are using "The Economy" in at least one course.

68 US universities and colleges have adopted "The Economy" – and it's not hard to see why. An Arkansas State University prof says that adopting CORE saves his students $100k/year.

As the economists like to say, "Money talks, bullshit walks."

Teaching from a standard text that acknowledges the obvious reality of the world has the potential to open up the economics profession's pipeline to students beyond the narrow slice of people to whom "homo economicus" sounds reasonable.

Having an Econ 101 textbook that mentions concepts like "bargaining," "the environment," "globalism" and "democracy" shouldn't be radical, but it is. Is it any wonder econ is dominated by such terrible people with terrible ideas?

We're long past the point where our econ textbooks should contain sentences like "The economy is part of society, which is part of the biosphere" or "goods and services that are produced within the household, such as meals or childcare (predominantly provided by women)."

But "The Economy" is the only one that does!

Now, this won't automatically fix our stupid economic consensus. It's sailing into stiff headwinds, because economic orthodoxy produces billionaires, and they bat heavily for it.

Billionaires funded the creation of PragerU, a Youtube propaganda channel that offers bizarre, tortured defenses of inequality and labor abuses.

A billionaire just bought Politico and announced that its journalists would have to take a loyalty oath, promising to promote "a free-market economy," and if they disagree, they shouldn't work there.

But we have to start somewhere. Decades of patient capital have sidelined any account of political economy that suggests that markets don't solve all our problems and therefore whatever world markets produce is the best possible world.

Unwashing those brains won't be easy – but we've got something important on our side. We're right, and they're wrong, and the world is on fire because they're wrong. That's a pretty good convincer to have on your side.

Vintage engraving of a dead letter office where postal officials struggle to decipher addressing information; captioned 'Who is it for? A scene in the dead letter office experts trying to decipher an illegible address'.

Podcasting "Dead Letters" (permalink)

This week on my podcast, I read last week's Medium column, "Dead Letters," about how consolidation in mailhosting and the spam-wars have made it all but impossible to host your own newsletter or mailing list.

During last year's Substack bubble, there was a lot of enthusiastic talk about email as the last decentralized online protocol, and how that meant that creators and audiences could use it to connect without having to stay on the right side of giant corporate gatekeepers.

But the reality is that commercial mailhosting is gathered into a small number of large firms, as is free webmail – and email that originates from a server that isn't run by one of those giants is apt to be mis-flagged as spam and blocked.

That's been my experience. I've had my own mailserver (courtesy of Ken Snider) for a quarter-century, and my email routinely disappears – algorithmically moved to a Gmail or Outlook spam, folder, or worse – blocked from delivery altogether.

There was a three year period when I couldn't send mail to anyone using an email address hosted by AT&T (who had bought up hundreds of small ISPs and consolidated their email hosting). I emailed them every month, for years, without a response.

It's hard enough to host your own email, but it gets worse when you're hosting a newsletter (AKA a "mailing list").

I run one, the plura-list: it consists of one message per day, sent by me, with unrolled versions of my Twitter threads.

I took two weeks off blogging in September and when I started, this triggered an algorithmic tripwire in a giant webmail host with more than a billion users – for my thousands of subscribers there, everything I sent after I resumed went straight to spam.

Even worse was Comcast, which blocked my server because its anti-spam contractor, Vade, decided that the anti-spam confirmation emails that my server sends out when you subscribe were spam. With a single algorithmic decision, millions of people stopped getting my list.

This is basically what the Old Open Internet People predicted would happen during the spam wars – we'd get small groups of people using unaccountable, imperfect, error-prone processes to block small email servers until email was centralized into a handful of companies.

And, of course, spam continues, provided you sign up with one of those big commercial operators. I get hundreds of pitches per day from PR people who've bought shitty "press lists," imported them into Mailchimp, and then blast away on behalf of their clients.

Mailchimp won't tell me which lists I'm on. It won't let me block other people from adding me to lists without an opt-in. By any objective measure, it's a mass-scale spam facilitator, but it isn't being blocked by AT&T for three years. Comcast delivers its mail.

This is a worst-of-all-possible worlds – we lost email's decentralization and we created a path for "legitimate," relentless spam.

Here's the podcast episode:

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 for my podcast:

This day in history (permalink)

#20yrsago Linux on a Big Mouth Billy Bass fish

#15yrsago How pickpockets work

#10yrsago Advice to the 1% from Lemony Snicket

#10yrsago Proposed Australian law makes it an offense to insult Gaming Minister Michael O’Brien

#10yrsago EU vs Facebook: Facebook’s dossiers on Europeans breach EU privacy laws

#10yrsago Aloha From Hell: Sandman Slim goes back to Hell and kicks more ass

#10yrsago Why are more people opting for legal name-changes than ever before?

#5yrsago Everything Belongs to the Future: a tale of pharmadystopian, immortal gerontocrats

#5yrsago Wrong things that programmers believe, a curated list

#5yrsago UK government proposes issuing Britons with unique porn-viewing ID numbers

#5yrsago Islamophobic terrorist cell planned a “bloodbath” in Kansas, wanted to kill Muslim babies

#5yrsago UK’s Investigatory Powers Tribunal says GHCQ illegally spied for 17 years

#5yrsago Kim Stanley Robinson says Elon Musk’s Mars plan is a “1920s science-fiction cliché”

#5yrsago Matt Taibbi on Trump’s “fury and failure”

#5yrsago Howard Stern won’t release Trump tapes

#1yrago Happy World Standards Day or not

#1yrago Educator sued for criticising "invigilation" tool

Colophon (permalink)

Today's top sources: Naked Capitalism (, Matt Flood (

Currently writing:

  • Spill, a Little Brother short story about pipeline protests. Friday's progress: 302 words (24895 words total)

  • Picks and Shovels, a Martin Hench noir thriller about the heroic era of the PC. Yesterday's progress: 527 words (20515 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: Breaking In
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Upcoming books:

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

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