Pluralistic: 17 Nov 2021


Today's links



A shell-game player who is lifting a shell to reveal an Aspiration Mastercard, emblazoned with the motto, 'Do well, do good.'

Aspiration's comprehensively deceptive greenwashing (permalink)

It's impossible to miss Aspiration's star-studded marketing blitz, in which a succession of A-listers promise you that you can save the planet by switching credit-cards ("Do good. Do well."). They're emblematic of the promise of green capitalism, the idea that climate emergency is about a slight misconfiguration of the profit motive and the finance sector.

If that's true, it's great news for our species, our civilization and our planet. It would mean that we could head off the climate emergency with just a few tweaks to finance regulation, which is a much easier lift than transforming the whole economy. Even if you hate capitalism, it'd be great if saving the world could be decoupled from ending the finance sector, because doing the former would give you more time to accomplish the latter.

But if it's possible to "do well and do good," you wouldn't know it from Aspiration. From top to bottom, the company is a swamp of deception, omissions, and greenwashing. For a comprehensive breakdown of the Aspiration scam, look to Carson Kessler's excellent Propublica investigation:

https://www.propublica.org/article/the-celebrity-backed-green-fintech-company-that-isnt-as-green-as-it-seems

Take Aspiration's tree-planting program. The company claims that it planted 35 million trees over the past year. But in its fine-print, it discloses that the 35m figure includes "the cumulative total of to-be planted trees." This is a special accounting practice in which you blend imaginary accomplishments with real ones. The technical term for that accounting practice is "a lie."

How many trees has Aspiration planted? Who the fuck knows. Aspiration says it's 12 million, with the balance of those 35m trees residing in a to-be-planted limbo managed by the company's "partners."

So Kessler called those partners. One of them, Eden Reforestation, said the real number is 16 million (Aspiration is apparently a finance company that can't count one of its key outputs within a 33.3% margin of error?). Another partner, Arbor Day Foundation, said it had planted a mere 6,000 trees for Aspiration, with no plans to plant any more. The third partner, "One Tree Planted" said the details of its single Aspiration project are a secret.

Secret trees.

Does it matter if the trees are secret? Well, only if you care about decarbonization. Not all tree-planting is created equal. For tree-planting to mitigate atmospheric carbon, there needs to be a 20-to-50-year plan to see that tree through to maturity. Planting a tree is cheap and easy. Growing a tree is hard and expensive. If Aspiration won't tell us anything about the latter, we should wonder why.

Aspiration's tree-planting program may not take up much carbon from the atmosphere, but it surely takes up a lot of cash from Aspiration customers. If you opt into Aspiration's tree-planting program, the company rounds up your transactions and uses the balance to plant a tree. For example, if you charge a $4.23 sandwich to your Aspiration card, they'll charge you $5, and use the $0.77 to plant a tree.

Here's the thing. Planting a tree costs $0.10. Aspiration isn't planting 7.7 trees with the $0.77 you handed it, it's just planting one tree, and netting a 770% profit on the transaction. It says it puts the leftovers towards "administrative" costs, as well as "marketing, promotion, fees," and "other conditional fees," which is grifterspeak for "I put that money in my pocket."

Now, it's true that if you charge a $4.99 sandwich to your Aspiration card, they say they'll plant a $0.10 tree and eat the $0.09 loss, but you can bet that the company has calculated that the majority of transactions go in its favor. Otherwise, they could just say, "We pool all the rounded-up change and plant trees with all of it."

Aspiration's other major enterprise is a "green" mutual fund, Redwood, part of the boom in "environmental, social and corporate governance" (ESG) funds that supposedly only invest in companies whose success doesn't rely on rendering our planet uninhabitable. The median ESG is a total greenwashing scam and Redwood is no exception:

https://pluralistic.net/2021/03/24/greenwashing/#bargaining

Redwood invests in such "green" companies as Southwest Air, Linde (the company that supplies "Dryfrac" to frackers), MSA Safety (a major oil and gas supplier). Redwood's daily operations are handled by UBS, one of the world's premier financers of planet-destroying genocide-tech:

https://www.bankingonclimatechaos.org/bankingonclimatechange2020/

With all this shady garbage on the "doing good" side of its ledger, it won't surprise you to learn that Aspiration's "doing well" side is also a cesspool of fraud and deception.

Take the number of "members" the company claims: 5 million. You might be forgiven for thinking that "5 million members" is the same thing as "5 million customers." It's not. An Inspiration "member" is just someone who has clicked "I agree" on Aspiration's terms and conditions, whether or not they actually opened an account. Aspiration has 592,148 customers – a figure that's 90% smaller than the number of "members" it boasts about.

Despite this fraud, Aspiration is flying high. It's about to go public via a SPAC that will put its valuation at $2.3b. That is an eye-popping valuation, but maybe all those bullshit trees, "green" investments in fossil fuel, and pocketed pennies justify it?

Oh hell no.

Aspiration claims to be "cash-flow positive" based on its "Adjusted EBITDAM." That's not a typo. EBITDA ("earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation and amortization") is a normal accounting figure. "EBITDAM" includes marketing in that figure, which is not a normal accounting measurement. It is, in fact, bullshit.

And Aspiration spends a lot on marketing. $149m last year, if you believe its own numbers. That budget bought it celeb endorsements, and a 23-year sponsorship deal with the LA Clippers, including naming rights for the team's new arena.

In other words, a money-hemorrhaging greenwashing turkey of a company that you've only ever heard of because it spends far more on marketing than it brings in says that its marketing budget isn't relevant to how we calculate its earning potential. That's like telling an Uber driver that the cost of gas has no impact on how much money they'll net.

If you measure Aspiration based on EBITDAM (that is, the fraud metric), its 2021 takings will be $536,000. If you use EBITDA (the non-fraud metric), the number is negative $149,000,000.

Don't worry, they'll make it up in volume.

The company's SPAC acquisition is a classic long-con blow-off, in which a $412,000,000 cash infusion is characterized as a "$2,300,000 deal." The missing $1.8 billion is accounted for by something the company calls "implied equity value,' which is a heterodox accounting term meaning "fraud."

In other words, Aspiration's got us coming and going. The cardholders who are letting the company keep the change from their transactions are getting secret, overcounted and likely useless trees. The suckers who put their savings into Aspiration's mutuals in order to avoid being roasted alive by climate change are actually funding the fossil fuel industry. And the investors who piled into Aspiration did so on the basis of a shit-avalanche of material untruths, omissions and lies.

Those investors include such celebs as Leonardo DiCaprio, Orlando Bloom, Robert Downey Jr. and Drake, which tells you that you shouldn't trust A-listers with your retirement savings.

I'll give the final word here to Aspiration CFO Rojeh Avanesian: "We believe EBITDAM to be the appropriate profitability metric for us to use given the historic growth opportunity and lifetime-value to acquisition-cost ratio that we are experiencing."

Cool story, bro.



A screw press that has crushed a Live Nation logo. A pair of Monopoly Rich Uncle Pennybags men dance on the press, having removed their faces to reveal death's-head skulls behind them. In the background, a faded, blurred image of a festival crowd.

Live Nation is to blame for the Astroworld deaths (permalink)

It's obviously grotesque to pick a "worst thing" about the Astroworld catastrophe that killed ten people (including a young child), but it's pretty easy to pick a "most enraging thing" about the disaster – how foreseeable and preventable it was.

The kind of crowd-crush that killed and maimed those Astroworld attendees happens all the time. There was another stampede at the Astrodome, two weeks previous, at a Playboi Carti show.

https://news.yahoo.com/2-weeks-astroworld-tragedy-playboi-164952775.html

And that wasn't even the first time a Playboi Carti Astrodome show had a stampede – the same thing happened in 2019:

https://www.vulture.com/article/essay-travis-scott-astroworld-tragedy-what-now.html

As David Dayen writes in The American Prospect, this happens at concerts all over the place, whenever you have the combination of general admission venues, a set of barriers that kettle attendees, and understaffed security. It happened in Central Park in 2018, at Snoop Dogg and Gwen Stefani gigs in 2016, and more.

https://prospect.org/power/the-astroworld-tragedy-is-a-story-of-corporate-power/

It would be weird if all these different venues all engaged in the same unsafe practices, but there's a common thread running through all of this: Live Nation, the monopolist whose conglomerate also includes Ticketmaster, Pandora and Siriusxm. Live Nation also has an equity stake in 300 major venues. If you're going to a gig, whatever happens is Live Nation's fault, because it runs the show.

As Dayen writes, monopolists don't have to care about adverse outcomes from corporate negligence. It's nearly impossible to enjoy live music without enriching Live Nation, so why should they give a shit if people who go to those shows get killed?

Live Nation understaffed the Astroworld show. It understaffs all its shows.

https://www.ticketnews.com/2021/11/houston-chief-live-nations-astroworld-security-staffing-records-not-good/

And, as is typical for Live Nation, the company had no contingency plan for a crowd surge:

https://www.wnmufm.org/2021-11-10/astroworlds-safety-plan-called-for-deceased-to-be-referred-to-as-smurfs

(It did have a contingency plan for dead concertgoers, though: security staff were to refer to these corpses as "Smurfs" so as not to alarm other concertgoers).

Live Nation knows that, as a monopolist, it's both too big to fail and too big to jail. The DoJ can whack it with $20,000,000 fines for corporate espionage and it just shrugs it off:

https://www.justice.gov/usao-edny/pr/ticketmaster-pays-10-million-criminal-fine-intrusions-competitor-s-computer-systems-0

It can illegally require bands to use Ticketmaster for all their live-shows, get caught, only to be told "Don't do it again" by the FTC:

https://www.wsj.com/articles/justice-department-preparing-legal-action-against-live-nation-for-ticketing-tactics-11576266778

And then, it can do it again, knowing the only consequence will be the FTC saying "Don't do it again," again.

https://www.justice.gov/opa/pr/justice-department-will-move-significantly-modify-and-extend-consent-decree-live

No wonder the company's stock-price hit a record high in the middle of a pandemic in which the global market for live events declined to a figure indistinguishable from zero:

https://finance.yahoo.com/quote/LYV

As Dayen writes, the failure to enforce antitrust law on concert promoters may seem like a mere dereliction of duty, but it actually creates a substantial risk to public safety. Without antitrust enforcement, it doesn't matter how high Live Nation's kill-count climbs, they'll still be in business.

(Image: Guzmán Lozano, CC BY, modified; LA2, CC BY-SA, modified).



This day in history (permalink)

#15yrsago Ballmer: Linux users are patent-crooks https://web.archive.org/web/20061121232448/www.linuxworld.com.au/index.php/id;839593139;fp;2;fpid;1

#15yrsago Paramount/MPAA: it’s illegal to put DVDs on iPods https://web.archive.org/web/20061119111822/https://www.eff.org/deeplinks/archives/005010.php

#10yrsago Sustainable Materials: indispensable, impartial popular engineering book on the future of our built and made world https://memex.craphound.com/2011/11/17/sustainable-materials-indispensable-impartial-popular-engineering-book-on-the-future-of-our-built-and-made-world/

#10yrsago New Zealand Prime Minister sends police to raid major news outlets over covert recording of negotiations with far-right party https://www.rnz.co.nz/news/election-2011/91307/john-key-defends-resources-used-on-tape-investigation

#10yrsago Wire creator to atty gen’l: “Thanks for your interest in another season; end the war on drugs and we’ll talk” https://web.archive.org/web/20140131060154/https://www.thewire.com/entertainment/2011/06/wire-creator-david-simon-has-counter-offer-eric-holder/38706/

#5yrsago Iphones secretly send your call history to Apple’s cloud, even after you tell them not to https://theintercept.com/2016/11/17/iphones-secretly-send-call-history-to-apple-security-firm-says/

#5yrsago Superstar academic economists charge $1000+/hr to defend disastrous corporate megamergers https://www.propublica.org/article/these-professors-make-more-than-thousand-bucks-hour-peddling-mega-mergers



Colophon (permalink)

Currently writing:

  • Spill, a Little Brother short story about pipeline protests. Yesterday's progress: 252 words (30920 words total)

  • Picks and Shovels, a Martin Hench noir thriller about the heroic era of the PC. Yesterday's progress: 502 words (39367 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: The Unimaginable (https://craphound.com/news/2021/11/15/the-unimaginable/)

Upcoming appearances:

Recent appearances:

Latest book:

Upcoming books:

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

This work licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 license. That means you can use it any way you like, including commercially, provided that you attribute it to me, Cory Doctorow, and include a link to pluralistic.net.

https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/

Quotations and images are not included in this license; they are included either under a limitation or exception to copyright, or on the basis of a separate license. Please exercise caution.


How to get Pluralistic:

Blog (no ads, tracking, or data-collection):

Pluralistic.net

Newsletter (no ads, tracking, or data-collection):

https://pluralistic.net/plura-list

Mastodon (no ads, tracking, or data-collection):

https://mamot.fr/web/accounts/303320

Medium (no ads, paywalled):

https://doctorow.medium.com/

(Latest Medium column: "Jam To-Day: Liberating Big Tech's hostages on day one." https://medium.com/@doctorow/jam-to-day-46b74d5b1da4)

Twitter (mass-scale, unrestricted, third-party surveillance and advertising):

https://twitter.com/doctorow

Tumblr (mass-scale, unrestricted, third-party surveillance and advertising):

https://mostlysignssomeportents.tumblr.com/tagged/pluralistic

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