- Countervailing power: Finding the hairball's loose ends.
- Hey look at this: Delights to delectate.
- This day in history: 2002, 2012, 2017, 2021
- Colophon: Recent publications, upcoming/recent appearances, current writing projects, current reading
Countervailing power (permalink)
It's hard not to feel powerless. The rich are getting richer, the middle class is disappearing, and poor people are evermore exposed to labor abuses, predatory finance, police violence, and food-, fuel- and housing-insecurity. Our cities are increasingly segregated into the haves and have-nots, and the haves hoard the parks, schools and clean air:
The rich don't just own all the good stuff, they also own the political process. The now-classic 2014 paper "Testing Theories of American Politics: Elites, Interest Groups, and Average Citizens," finds that "ordinary citizens… get the policies they favor, but only because those policies happen also to be preferred by the economically-elite citizens who wield the actual influence."
How do material wealth and political power relate to each other? Well, on the one hand, it's obvious that if you have more wealth, you have more to spend on lobbying, directed both to the public and to lawmakers. As the leaks in Propublica's IRS Files show, just having a lot of money can scare off regulators and legal enforcers, who know you'll be able to hire more lawyers and better than they can afford.
But the secret to oligarchy isn't (just) outspending the rest of us. Oligarchs wield a far more important weapon: class solidarity. There is so much solidarity among billionaires, centimillionaires, decimillionaires and even ordinary millionaires, who may jockey with one another for the right to financialize your rent and suppress your wages, but come together with admirable discipline when their collective interests are at stake.
Take taxes. In a major new Propublica IRS Files story, Paul Kiel and Mick Dumke document the behind-the-scenes spending that defeated Illinois's state referendum on a progressive state tax comparable to the system in 32 other states:
Led by the hedge-fund billionaire Ken Griffin of Citadel (the richest man in the state) the ultra-rich of Illinois unleashed a blizzard of money on deceptive ads that ultimately defeated the measure. That spending was a bargain! Propublica calculates that Griffin's $54,000,000 contribution saved him $51,000,000 per year thereafter (the IRS Files show Griffin's average income to be about $2.9 billion per year).
Griffin led the "investment" in starving Illinois's tax coffers, but he had a lot of co-investors: there's Richard Uihlein, the billionaire behind Iline, who kicked in $100k. Uihlein's a shrewd investor in political corruption, having spent $20m on Ron Johnson's campaign, only to have Johnson insert a last-minute amendment to the Trump tax cuts that saved him $215m in the first year alone:
Sam Zell, whose leveraged buyout of the Chicago Tribune led the newspaper into bankruptcy, kicked in $1.1m and got $1.6m/year in savings every year thereafter. The Tribune now operates out of a windowless cinderblock bunker the size of a Chipotle:
Patrick Ryan gave $1m to realize a return of $2.1m/year. Richard Colburn's $500k nets him $5.5m/year. He told Propublica that the spending was an investment "to limit the temptation on me to relocate." Donald Wilson gave $250k to get back $3.5m/year.
Richard Stephenson, who made his nut with a chain of for-profit cancer hospitals and was executive producer on two Ayn Rand film adaptations (you literally can't make this shit up), gave $300k through his trust.
Another trust spend came from Philip M Friedmann, who cashed out his family's greeting card business by selling to private equity looters. Friedmann's trust is a "personal" one, which makes his $25k investment illegal, according to three tax experts that Propublica consulted.
The campaign to raise Illinois' 5% flat tax to an 8% tax for the richest people in the state was a rare example of billionaire-on-billionaire violence. Democrat Governor JB Pritzker – scion of the Hyatt Hotel fortune – won office by promising to raise taxes on the rich. This sparked a political bidding war, pitting former GOP governor Bruce Rauner (another private equity looter) in a race that ultimately cost more than $250m.
Though the billionaire low-tax coalition lost the battle for the governor's mansion, they won the war, thanks to $63m in ads that convinced the people of Illinois that they would see higher taxes as a result (the vast majority of Illinoisians would not have seen their tax bills go up).
While Pritzker is a rare class traitor, he still maintained some loyalty to his cohort, continuing to milk his grandfather's fortune through a system of secret trusts typical of dynastic wealth, which seeks to ensure that merely emerging from a very lucky orifice guarantees you the power to impact the lives of millions of people who lost the orifice lottery:
When even the "good" billionaires favor the eugenic proposition that being descended from someone who made a lot of money makes you suited to leadership and influence, it's no wonder that this proposition is so durable in our political system.
Now, it's obvious why rich people would favor a system that increased and perpetuated their wealth and power, but self-interest alone doesn't explain the rock-solid solidarity of the oligarchs. The other crucial element is in their numbers: when your bloc is small, it's easier to come to agreement on how it should mobilize.
This is how monopolies rot our society and politics. When an industry is composed of hundreds of companies, they'll struggle to agree on the catering for their annual meeting. Reduce the number of firms until all their CEOs will fit around a board-room table, and they'll be able to agree on far more ambitious issues, like whether to raise prices in unison and blame "inflation":
Collective action problems are some of the hardest challenges we face as a species. Solving collective action problems are why we build institutions: from the Mafia to the Catholic Church, from trade unions to federal governments, from the UN to the Cali cartel, organizations exist to find ways to let groups of people coordinate their activities to do more than any individual could do on their own:
Oligarchs benefit from having a lot of money to spend, but even more important is that their numbers are so low that they can agree on how to spend it. Every time the rich figure out how to coordinate better, they clean up. Take this NBER working paper that shows that when giant funds become company shareholders, worker wages go down:
Once the power of the wealthy is gathered into the hands of a few fund managers, they're able to direct that power to pick managers who'll endure the internal strife from slashing wages, benefits and staffing levels. Workers, by contrast, are atomized and can be divided and pitted against one another.
Now, obviously if real wages are declining, then there must have been a time when forces drove them up, when workers were able to hold the line against the power of the owning class. The most familiar tool workers used to exercise this power was unionization, which is why oligarchs hate unions and spend millions to keep their workers from organizing.
Though unions are having a renaissance, they are still far weaker than they were during the period in which workers built and expanded power – and oligarchs are far stronger (richer, more coordinated). Oligarchs have built a flywheel, where more power gives them more money which gives them more power.
To brake the flywheel, we have to come up with our own virtuous cycle of systems, laws and tactics that build one atop another. "Countervailing Power" is a new series from The American Prospect and The Forge that systematically explores how to build that system:
The debut article is "Laws That Create Countervailing Power," a discussion between ACORN's Steve Kest and Benjamin Sachs and Kate Andrias, facilitated by Robert Kuttner:
The discussion is framed by "Constructing Countervailing Power: Law and Organizing in an Era of Political Inequality," a Yale Law Review article by Sachs and Andrias about laws that can be used to build, fortify and expand worker power:
They propose that there are six categories of law that build countervailing power:
I. Laws that "grant collective rights in an explicit and direct way to create a frame that encourages organizing"
II. Laws that "provide for financial, human, and other resources," including money, but also "information that helps direct the work of the organization and inform its leadership"
III. Laws that create "free spaces in which movement organizing can occur, free from surveillance and control," both physical and digital
IV. Laws that "remove barriers to participation both by protecting people involved in organizing efforts from retaliation and also by removing material obstacles that make it difficult for people to organize"
V. Laws that "provide organizations with ways to make material change in their members’ lives" by "creating ways to engage in bargaining with private and public actors that actually correspond to the way political and economic power is organized"
VI. Laws that "enable contestation and disruptive collective action" including "strikes and protests and other kinds of disruptive activity"
The article and the discussion give good examples of all six, but I'm more interested in how they play into one another – like how the New Deal electrification co-ops created enduring institutions that organized people, incubated leaders, and turned into telephone co-ops. Some of these are around today, providing blazing-fast co-op internet (AKA, the "free spaces" mentioned above) to poor people:
I was recently on an organizing tactics call about the housing crisis, and we got to talking about the wicked panoply of problems that drive people to oppose affordable housing. With the elimination of unions – and thus work – as a path to social mobility, we've told working people that everything depends on their house appreciating.
Unless their family home goes up in value, they will not be able to afford retirement, their kids' college education or emergency medical bills. They certainly won't be able to put down a deposit for their own kids' homes.
All of this drives people to want to limit the supply of housing, and also to hoard the benefits of housing, supporting nakedly inequitable policies like funding schools through local taxes, so richer neighborhoods get better schools.
It also drives people with homes to favor policies that make life worse for people without homes. The worse things are for tenants, the more landlords can extract from them, and the more all houses are worth, because everyone is bidding against landlords who can raise rents, evict, and pass on maintenance costs.
On the one hand, this is dismal, because maybe it means that we can't improve our housing system until we fix pensions, student debt, for-profit healthcare, and tenants' rights.
But on the other hand, you can think of each of these issues as a loose end in the gnarly knot of housing dysfunction, a place where we can start unpicking the problem. Like, if we fix student debt, a major part of the reason to favor anti-tenancy policies will disappear (the parents who want to use home equity to send their kids to college also realized that their kids will be tenants, after all).
In other words, the entanglement of all our social problems means that any battle where we can eke out a victory produces tactical benefits for all the other fronts in the war. It means we can build victory upon victory. It means we can tear apart the countersolidaristic coalitions (say, homeowners) by addressing the material conditions that lead people to fight against the human right to shelter.
Uncoupling a dignified retirement, or a decent education, or lifesaving medical treatment, from the need to immiserate others is a powerful tool to build up countervailing power – to create coalitions like the ones that suppressed oligarchy from the New Deal until the Reagan Revolution.
Hey look at this (permalink)
- Companies Are Hacking Their Way Around the Chip Shortage https://www.wired.com/story/chip-shortage-hacks/
Nick Robinson speaks to Mick Lynch, the general secretary of the RMT union https://www.bbc.co.uk/sounds/play/m0017sxg
Journey Back Into Imagination https://journeybackintoimagination.blogspot.com/ (h/t Wil Wheaton)
This day in history (permalink)
#20yrsago The 1997 prototype for parasitic computing https://web.archive.org/web/20010605022101/http://hotwired.lycos.com/packet/packet/schrage/97/01/index1a.html
#20yrsago The difference between OS X and Linux https://web.archive.org/web/20020709192034/https://www.oblomovka.com/entries/2002/07/06
#20yrsago Michael Jackson: music industry is a racist conspiracy to steal from artists https://www.billboard.com/music/music-news/michael-jackson-brands-recording-industry-as-racist-75178/
#20yrsago More sharp notes on Palladium https://web.archive.org/web/20020802145913/http://vitanuova.loyalty.org/2002-07-05.html
#10yrsago The UK has spent more money bailing out its banks in the past 12 months than it has spent on science since the time of Christ https://www.bbc.com/news/av/uk-politics-18736011
#10yrsago Def Leppard cuts off Universal Music, re-records “forgeries” of its own hits https://www.hollywoodreporter.com/news/general-news/def-leppard-forgeries-rerecord-universal-344385/
#10yrsago My stupidest moment as a customer, ever https://memex.craphound.com/2012/07/06/my-stupidest-moment-as-a-customer-ever/
#10yrsago Mitt Romney doesn’t know how Venn diagrams work https://thesocietypages.org/socimages/2012/07/06/how-not-to-venn-diagram/
#10yrsago Just Do It doc on direct-action environmentalists now available as free, CC-licensed BitTorrent download https://web.archive.org/web/20120629082822/http://justdoitfilm.com/download-the-bittorrent
#10yrsago Austerity creates an organlegging bubble https://www.nytimes.com/2012/06/29/world/europe/black-market-for-body-parts-spreads-in-europe.html
#10yrsago Rand and Ron Paul denounce net neutrality and the public domain https://www.techdirt.com/2012/07/05/ron-rand-paul-net-neutrality-public-domain-are-really-evil-collectivist-plots/
#10yrsago Scientology memo asks members to censor critical web comments with trumped up “code of conduct” complaints https://news.yahoo.com/blogs/lookout/church-scientology-asks-followers-censor-comments-160104800.html
#10yrsago John Scalzi profiled in the NYT https://www.nytimes.com/2012/07/07/books/in-redshirts-john-scalzi-gives-expendables-a-life.html
#5yrsago Theresa May says she won’t address climate change at the G20 summit https://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/g20-climate-change-theresa-may-donald-trump-uk-paris-climate-agreement-accord-a7826846.html
#5yrsago Networks hide badly rated shows by misspelling their names in Nielsen submissions https://www.cnet.com/culture/entertainment/report-tv-networks-hide-bad-ratings-with-typos-and-misspellings/
#5yrsago Under Trumpcare, surviving a gunshot wounds gives you a “pre-existing condition” https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2017-07-06/don-t-expect-health-coverage-if-you-survive-a-gunshot-wound
#5yrsago The W3C has overruled members’ objections and will publish its DRM for videos https://www.eff.org/deeplinks/2017/07/amid-unprecedented-controversy-w3c-greenlights-drm-web
#5yrsago How to write pulp fiction that celebrates humanity’s essential goodness https://locusmag.com/2017/07/cory-doctorow-be-the-first-one-to-not-do-something-that-no-one-else-has-ever-not-thought-of-doing-before/
#5yrsago America is starting to realize that “liberal/conservative” labels exclude the left https://www.nytimes.com/2017/07/05/magazine/hated-by-the-right-mocked-by-the-left-who-wants-to-be-liberal-anymore.html
#1yrsago Quantifying copyright reversion: The first-of-its-kind dataset of creators who took back their rights https://pluralistic.net/2021/07/06/backsies/#take-backs
#1yrago Comic book store files comic-book lawsuit: Third Planet Comics has already won its case…in my heart https://pluralistic.net/2021/07/07/instrumentalism/#legal-funnies
#1yrago Biden delivers Right to Repair via executive order https://pluralistic.net/2021/07/07/instrumentalism/#r2r
#1yrago Technological self-determination: Competition is a means, not an end https://pluralistic.net/2021/07/07/instrumentalism/#self-determination
Today's top sources: Naked Capitalism (https://www.nakedcapitalism.com/).
- The Bezzle, a Martin Hench noir thriller novel about the prison-tech industry. Yesterday's progress: 632 words (23621 words total)
The Internet Con: How to Seize the Means of Computation, a nonfiction book about interoperability for Verso. Friday's progress: 578 words (19834 words total)
Picks and Shovels, a Martin Hench noir thriller about the heroic era of the PC. (92849 words total) – ON PAUSE
A Little Brother short story about DIY insulin PLANNING
Vigilant, Little Brother short story about remote invigilation. FIRST DRAFT COMPLETE, WAITING FOR EXPERT REVIEW
Moral Hazard, a short story for MIT Tech Review's 12 Tomorrows. FIRST DRAFT COMPLETE, ACCEPTED FOR PUBLICATION
Spill, a Little Brother short story about pipeline protests. FINAL DRAFT COMPLETE
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: Reasonable Agreement: On the Crapification of Literary Contracts https://craphound.com/news/2022/06/27/reasonable-agreement-on-the-crapification-of-literary-contracts/
- A New HOPE (NYC), Jul 24
DEFCON 30 (Las Vegas), Aug 13
- UK Competition and Markets Authority Data, Technology and Analytics Conference 2022:
Supp-Lie Demand (Bad Faith podcast with Briahna Joy Gray):
The Sci-Fi Feedback Loop: Mapping Fiction’s Influence on Real-World Tech
- "Attack Surface": The third Little Brother novel, a standalone technothriller for adults. The Washington Post called it "a political cyberthriller, vigorous, bold and savvy about the limits of revolution and resistance." Order signed, personalized copies from Dark Delicacies https://www.darkdel.com/store/p1840/Available_Now%3A_Attack_Surface.html
"How to Destroy Surveillance Capitalism": an anti-monopoly pamphlet analyzing the true harms of surveillance capitalism and proposing a solution. https://onezero.medium.com/how-to-destroy-surveillance-capitalism-8135e6744d59 (print edition: https://bookshop.org/books/how-to-destroy-surveillance-capitalism/9781736205907) (signed copies: https://www.darkdel.com/store/p2024/Available_Now%3A__How_to_Destroy_Surveillance_Capitalism.html)
"Little Brother/Homeland": A reissue omnibus edition with a new introduction by Edward Snowden: https://us.macmillan.com/books/9781250774583; personalized/signed copies here: https://www.darkdel.com/store/p1750/July%3A__Little_Brother_%26_Homeland.html
"Poesy the Monster Slayer" a picture book about monsters, bedtime, gender, and kicking ass. Order here: https://us.macmillan.com/books/9781626723627. Get a personalized, signed copy here: https://www.darkdel.com/store/p2682/Corey_Doctorow%3A_Poesy_the_Monster_Slayer_HB.html#/.
- Chokepoint Capitalism: How to Beat Big Tech, Tame Big Content, and Get Artists Paid, with Rebecca Giblin, nonfiction/business/politics, Beacon Press, September 2022
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