Pluralistic: 08 Sep 2022 Billionaires as policy-failure factories; In Real Life, in real life

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A picture of a flooded suburban street with a streetsign reading '25th St SW' protruding from the water; behind it is a Soviet editorial cartoon of a cigar-chomping plutocrat. He is standing before a control box with a large, dollar-sign-shaped lever. He is pulling the lever. He holds up one gloved hand. Dangling from that hand is the US Capital Dome.

Every billionaire is a factory for producing policy failures (permalink)

Louis Brandeis once said, "we can have democracy in this country or we can have great wealth concentrated in the hands of the few, but we can't have both." It's part of a long American tradition that abhors the gathering of power into just a few hands.

But there's a countertradition in American politics: the belief in the unchecked power of plutocrats and robber-barons, who amass great fortunes, convert them into political power, and use that power to unaccountably structure the lives of millions of working people. Some Americans call this "liberty."

The tension between aristocratic aspirations and democratic limits has been part of America since the earliest days. Thomas Jefferson (unsuccessfully) lobbied for an antimonopoly clause in the Constitution in order to check the power of the wealthy – only to be defeated by the wealthy landowners who saw American independence as a means to transition from one set of hereditary rulers to another.

The fight to prevent the rise of a new aristocracy has never ended in America. In 1890, Senator John Sherman addressed the Senate to argue for his landmark antitrust bill, saying, "If we will not endure a King as a political power we should not endure a King over the production, transportation, and sale of the necessaries of life."

But as Thomas Piketty showed in his magisterial "Capital in the 21st Century," market economies inevitably produce oligarchies, unless there is a muscular state that can strip the wealthy of the power and influence they accumulate through rent extraction and exploitation:

Thus it is that the aristocrats-in-waiting are always with us, working tirelessly to create the society described by Frank Wilhoit: "There must be in-groups whom the law protects but does not bind, alongside out-groups whom the law binds but does not protect."

The great fortunes of today's robber-barons have a vast, distorting influence on our society, bending our most urgent projects away from evidence-based policy and towards the pet theories of billionaire dilettantes. The ultra-wealthy gave us education-denial in the form of the charter-school movement:

And they gave us vaccine Apartheid and the endless new variants it spawned, which threaten our very civilization:

But more than anything, they gave us climate denial, and with it, the most urgent threat to our species we face today. The dark money billionaires pour into climate denial doesn't merely fool people into disbelieving in climate change – even more importantly, it fools people into thinking that everyone around them has been fooled.

Or, as a study by Gregg Sparkman, Nathaniel Geiger and Elke Weber in Nature Communications put it, "Americans experience a false social reality by underestimating popular climate policy support by nearly half." That is, we all care about the climate emergency, but we think we don't.

That's the greatest trick billionaires pulled on us – making us feel like we are alone in our understanding of how they are destroying our world and our civilization. That is why, as I once wrote, "Every billionaire is a factory for producing policy-failures":

Here's a policy-failure gigafactory: Barre Seid, founder of Tripp Lite, who became a billionaire selling power-management tools for data-centers and then mobilized that fortune into a dark-money juggernaut, funding climate denial, abortion bans, Islamaphobic propaganda and other far-right causes, including a campaign to bring back DDT:

Seid operated in secret, using pseudonyms and cutouts, spending at least $775,000,000 between 1996 and 2018 to promote his pet causes. One of his major projects was support for the Federalist Society and its goal of packing the Supreme Court with far-right ideologues who supported forced birth, voter suppression, and other authoritarian projects (Seid calls himself a "libertarian").

Seid called this project "attack philanthropy" and it reached its zenith last month, when he handed $1,600,000,000 to a far-right dark-money group – the largest political donation in American history:

Seid described this money-tsunami as a countervaling force to the funding provided by "liberal" billionaires like George Soros. While Soros's political spending is an overblown bogeyman of the right-wing imagination, it's absolutely true that Democrats have a billionaire problem, too. Up and down the ticket, "self-funded" candidates with stupid ideas and weak campaigns are bankrupting their progressive primary rivals and their supporters in pointless races:

(Image: MrT HK, CC BY 2.0, modified)

A panel from the graphic novel 'In Real Life' in which Anda and Raymond are having a union organizing talk; the background of the panel has been replaced with a screengrab from the Critterz Minecraft world.

The horrifying tale of a blockchain-based virtual sweatshop (permalink)

In 2004, my wife came home from the Game Developers Conference with a wild story. A presenter there claimed that he had set up a sweatshop on the US/Mexican border where he paid low-wage workers to do repetitive tasks in Everquest to amass virtual gold, which was sold on Ebay to lazier, richer players

The presenter was a well-known bullshitter and people were skeptical at the time, but my imagination was fired. I sat down at my keyboard and wrote "Anda's Game," a story about "gold farmers" who form an in-game, transnational trade-union under their bosses' noses:

"Anda's Game" was a surprise hit. It got reprinted in the year's Best American Short Stories, won a bunch of awards, and Jen Wang and Firstsecond turned it into the NYT bestselling graphic novel "In Real Life":

Then, in 2010, I adapted the story into For the Win, a YA novel about gold farming and global trade unions (led by the Industrial Workers of the World Wide Web, AKA IWWW, AKA Webblies):

There's an old cyberpunk writers' joke that "cyberpunk is a warning, not a suggestion." Alas, my parable-like stories about how digital technology enables the creation of new, high-tech sweatshops that arbitrage weak labor protections in the global south to worsen working conditions everywhere embodied the punchline to that cyberpunk joke. Over and over, these stories became touchstones for all kinds of global, digital labor exploitation and global, digital labor solidarity.

But sometimes, the stories don't merely analogize to describe current situations – they end up very on-the-nose. Nowhere is that more true than with the blockchain-based, play-to-earn, NFT-infected gaming world, whose standard-bearer is the scandal-haunted Axie Infinity.

This week, my mentions have been full of "Don't create the Torment Nexus" jokes referencing Neirin Gray Desai's outstanding Rest of World story on the rise and implosion of the "play-to-earn" Minecraft/blockchain game Critterz:

Critterz was yet another one of those blockchain games, but they made a fatal mistake: they built their virtual sweatshop on Minecraft, whose parent company, Mojang (a subsidiary of Microsoft), banned NFT integration, stating: "blockchain technologies are not permitted to be integrated inside our Minecraft client and server applications nor may they be utilized to create NFTs associated with any in-game content, including worlds, skins, personal items, or other mods."

Very quickly, the in-game money issued by Critterz tanked, and players – both the poor people who actually played the game, and the rich people who bought the treasures they earned from them – ran for the exits.

Even without Minecraft's ban on NFTs, play-to-earn is in serious trouble. As the sector seeks a new lifeline, some wild ideas are emerging, straight out of the Torment Nexus. For example, Desai talked to Mikhai Kossar, who consults on NFT games. Kossar proposed that the future of play-to-earn might be poor people pretending to be non-player characters to give richness to the in-game experience of wealthy people. They could "just populate the world, maybe do a random job or just walk back and forth, fishing, telling stories, a shopkeeper, anything is really possible."

There's another tech joke, that "AI" stands for "Absent Indians" – the gag being that the "AIs" you interact with in the world are actually low-waged Indian workers pretending to be bots.

Once again – and I honestly can't believe I have to say this – that joke is a warning, not a suggestion.

Hey look at this (permalink)

This day in history (permalink)

#10yrsago Tim Berners-Lee blasts UK governmentā€™s Internet spying plan

#10yrsago Copyfraud: making the case for actual copyright enforcement

#5yrsago Superstorms are tearing up Americaā€™s crumbling, neglected infrastructure

#5yrsago Four years later, we learn why Jamie Dimonā€™s JP Morgan Chase settled US fraud allegations for $13B

#5yrsago Florida Sheriff warns storm victims to expect warrant checks at hurricane shelters

#5yrsago A pacifist minister reflects on the antifa who protected protesters from Charlottesvilleā€™s armed Nazis

#5yrsago Voice assistants can be hacked by commanding them with inaudible ultrasonic speech

Colophon (permalink)

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Currently writing:

  • The Bezzle, a Martin Hench noir thriller novel about the prison-tech industry. Yesterday's progress: 579 words (36857 words total)

  • The Internet Con: How to Seize the Means of Computation, a nonfiction book about interoperability for Verso. Yesterday's progress: 507 words (33252 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.

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  • Chokepoint Capitalism: How to Beat Big Tech, Tame Big Content, and Get Artists Paid, with Rebecca Giblin, nonfiction/business/politics, Beacon Press, September 2022

  • Red Team Blues: "A grabby, compulsive thriller that will leave you knowing more about how the world works than you did before." Tor Books, April 2023

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