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October 11, 2021

Filed under: politics»issues»technology


A few years ago, right when I moved to Chicago, I was working for a small tech consulting company. The founders were decent guys, well-meaning, progressive. I didn't love the work — "the customer is always right" is not a mindset I easily adopt — but it seemed generally harmless. So one day I was surprised to hear, in an all-staff meeting, that a coworker's web performance audit for Philip Morris had been a rousing success, and might lead to follow-up work.

Listen, I said in my regular check-in with the COO, I know we've got to pay the bills. I'm not trying to be a drama magnet. But this is Philip Morris, one of the most amoral corporate predators in the world. My grandfather died of cancer after smoking his whole life. It's a complex world, but I believe you can draw a few bright lines even under capitalism, and the two easiest examples are Literal Nazis and Big Tobacco.

Ever since I left that company, when I apply somewhere, I try to mention this scenario and ask "What are the clients you wouldn't take? Do you have a process for making that decision?" You may or may not be surprised to find that most people do not have a particularly good response. I interviewed for one well-known agency, and after a pause, the manager said "...that's a very 'journalist' question." I assume that was not meant to be flattering. They'd done work for Facebook, he said, after thinking about it, and for a lot of people that might be the same thing.

This week, there are a lot of comparisons between Facebook and Big Tobacco as whistleblower testimony from Frances Haugen confirms that the company is not only leaning on addiction as a business strategy, but has also been sitting on internal research about how awful its product is (Big Oil is probably a closer parallel). These discoveries aren't new. But Haugen's testimony and leaks are doing a good job of cutting through the usual dynamic around regulating Facebook, where Republicans insist that the company is biased against them (it's emphatically not), and Democrats wring their hands ineffectually.

Let's be clear: Philip Morris made $8 billion last year in profit. It's still a member of the Fortune 500. Apparently, for a lot of people, it's just another client. If this is the comparison for Facebook, they're going to be fine.

But at the same time, regardless of the bottom line, you can see the perception changing. Remember the interview where I was told that it was a "journalist" question to ask about client choice? This week, that agency's founders spent their podcast extending the tobacco and oil comparisons, arguing that Facebook should be regulated if it can't be eradicated. Now, maybe the right hand and left hand aren't talking to each other here (I wasn't interviewing with either of the speakers on the podcast), but that feels like a shift to me.

In the web community, it's time to start collectively questioning the norms around collaborating with Menlo Park. We have the ability to change the perception and access of Facebook — just look at Oracle or Intellectual Ventures! Like the tobacco companies, they're still profitable, of course. The market's gonna market. But it's harder for them to hire. Their influence and mindshare in shaping the conversation are substantially diminished. Nobody's excited about their output.

It was weird to me, when I questioned the Philip Morris contract, that nobody else seemed to have raised an issue. It hadn't even really occurred to them. But it definitely stuck with management: even when I left to go to NPR, it came up in the exit interview. There was a little unease that hadn't been there before. Sometimes that's all it takes.

Facebook, and by extension working with Facebook, or using code that comes from Facebook, should be considered embarrassing, or shameful. You can argue against using React or GraphQL on valid technical terms, in addition to the obvious moral hazard. Integrations with Facebook code should be isolated, treated as untrustworthy, and built in such a way that they can be replaced. When you meet Facebook employees at conferences or gatherings, let them know that it's nothing personal, but you just don't feel clean building on top of that legacy, and you hope they find a better place to work soon.

Imagine an airport smoking lounge: a dingy, nicotine-stained room where participants have to stand and face each other, away from everyone else. Now make that for Facebook. Regulation takes time and lobbying, but low-key shame is free and easily renewable.

July 16, 2013

Filed under: politics»issues»firearms

Trigger Happy

I wish I could say I'm surprised by the verdict in the Trayvon Martin case. It would have been nice to see the manslaughter charge stick--even Florida should be able to prosecute the poor man's murder--but that was probably a long shot. The fix was in from the moment that the police had to be embarrassed into even charging Zimmerman in the first place.

There were a lot of ugly parts of the American character wrapped up in the case. There was the casual, almost off-handed racism of the whole affair, but there was also the clownishness of our national fixation on firearms. That's the narrative that drove George Zimmerman, after all: a one-man neighborhood watch, following whatever "punks" were unlucky enough to find themselves the antagonists of his inner screening of Death Wish. I imagine that there are a lot of people who knew Zimmerman, who thought he was a nut and a caricature--almost a joke. After all, I have known people who were a hair's breadth from being George Zimmerman, and I've laughed at them. They're a lot less funny now.

Over the last year, since the shooting in Newtown, Josh Marshall has reposted stories to the TPM Editor's Blog whenever there's a story on the wire services of child deaths caused by guns. On average, there's probably one a week. It's a powerful, if understated, kind of journalism, like one of those Family Guy hanging gags: at first it's horrific, then it becomes routine, and then the normality of that routine becomes devastating in and of itself. There have been a lot of kids killed in the last eight months, with surprisingly little outcry.

It's as if, across the country, we've decided to raise our kids in a tank filled with deadly scorpions. Even though we lose children on a regular basis, discussing the obvious solution--getting rid of the scorpions, maybe buying a puppy instead--doesn't seem to be an option. To the contrary: more scorpions, screams the NRA! Scorpions for everyone! Only when everyone is covered in poisonous arthropods will we truly be safe!

(Of course, as various people have commented, the NRA is oddly silent on whether or not Trayvon Martin would have been safe from assault if he had been packing heat. This differs markedly from their usual argument that the solution is always more, and more powerful, weaponry. I can't imagine what's different in this case.)

With every recent shooting, there's been a sense on the left that this time, people will see how terrible our firearms fetish has become: Tucson, Aurora, and Newtown each brought a fresh sense of unreality to the whole debate. And now George Zimmerman walks, after shooting an unarmed black teenager for the simple crime of being where George Zimmerman didn't think he belonged. Maybe, finally, this will be the case when we start to think about what all these guns actually mean as a society, but I doubt it. That gives us too much credit: the deadlier our guns, the more we cling to them for comfort. Heaven help us all.

March 27, 2013

Filed under: politics»issues»education

Free 'Til It Hurts

These "Academic Freedom Act" laws seem like a very good idea to me, but I wonder if we're taking them far enough. If the Discovery Institute and all manner of right-wing think tanks want to Teach the Controversy, why limit ourselves to evolution and climate change? With that in mind, I've assembled a new school curriculum that (finally!) acknowledges the complicated world beyond "facts" and "truth."

Social Studies: Students will learn about the checks and balances built into our democratic way of life, of course. But we shouldn't leave them ignorant of competing theories, such as David Icke's "lizard oligarchy," in case the queen of England really does turn out to be a giant space reptile bent on world domination. As high school seniors, students will also spend the semester learning about Ayn Rand's theory of radical selfishness, in the hopes that it will keep them from reading Atlas Shrugged in college and becoming insufferably tedious for about a year and a half.

History: Move over, eurocentric history! Take cover, afrocentric and multicultural history! Under new management, history class will approach the hard questions of the past with an open mind toward alternate theories. For example: did the holocaust really happen, or is it just the invention of a shadowy cabal working behind the scenes of our financial and entertainment industries? You know who I'm talking about.

Physical Education: Gym class doesn't change, but students who get sick will now be told that their humours are out of balance, and will be bled by on-site leeches. Coaches also have the option of blaming vaccines when the football team loses.

English: Given the predominance of "literacy" in the early grades, students will spend the second half of their primary education learning how to communicate pre-verbally, mostly by pointing and grunting. For many teenagers, this won't be much of a change. The curriculum will culminate with a trip to a local quarry, where the students will attempt to recreate the Lascaux cave paintings, thus teaching them the valuable life lesson that art is hard so why try anyway?

Math: I tried to think of something funny about math, and then I remembered that we still teach kids about "imaginary" numbers, and to add insult to injury we do so very badly. Math is weird, y'all.

Foreign Languages: One word: Esperanto. Ironically, in Esperanto, this is actually twelve words. It's the language of the future, people. William Shatner did a whole movie in Esperanto once. I've got a good feeling about this one.

You're welcome.

May 16, 2011

Filed under: politics»issues»economy

Bitcoin Bankruptcy

With a post on Boing Boing this morning and a decent amount of chatter on Twitter, BitCoin appears to have hit the Internet mainstream. CNN will probably run a story in a week, although they'll be hard-pressed to make it seem any sillier than it already is, because BitCoin is the seasteading of economics: a bizarre scheme created by technolibertarians to address a problem nobody needed solving with a solution that nobody will ever find practical.

The site went down when the first flurry of links hit (a tremendously comforting state of affairs for an entirely-digital currency, I have to say), but here's the gist of BitCoin: it's a monetary system where you earn money by letting your computer "solve" large, complicated mathematical problems. The exact difficulty of these problems is adjusted by a peer-to-peer network to keep the rate of money generation at a planned level. Once created, each "coin" is a cryptographically-signed hash that can be passed from one person to another using a form of public key encryption. The theoretical advantages of this whole scheme are that:

  • There's no inflation, because the supply of coins is strictly constrained. In fact, they're designed to deflate over time. (As if this is a good thing?)
  • The coins can't be tracked, so the Man won't know what you've been buying. (This strikes me as a surpremely dim view of The Man's capabilities and/or motivation.)
  • It's all digital, so it supposedly can't be taxed. (And yet somehow we developed taxation before the invention of the electronic funds transfer.)

If these seem like they hit the all the standard talking points for crazy people who read Cryptonomicon and thought it was non-fiction, you're not far off. Avery Pennarun's explanation of its flaws has caught a lot of attention (as well as a lot of derision from the pro-BitCoin crowd, although I have yet to see anyone rebut it with anything more convincing than "nuh-uh!").

I'm not an economist, but I play one on the Internet. And from my point of view, the biggest strike against this, or any other alternative currency, is simply that it'll never get more of an audience than conspiracy theorists and utopians. Normal people won't use BitCoin because you can't buy lunch with it. Businesses won't use it because normal people don't use it. And banks won't use it because they already have a perfectly usable system of moving money around electronically, and because they have no incentives to switch unless businesses and normal people demand it, which they won't. Much of the argument for BitCoin seems to be "well, good, we didn't want banks or banking to exist anyway." At that point, the only reasonable response is to back away slowly toward the nearest exit.

Despite the fact that it's completely bonkers, I feel like it's a bit of a shame that BitCoin's so obviously useless. Not because we need a global, untraceable currency that eliminates useful governmental controls on the market, but because our current options for spending money online are so limited. If you pay for something over the Internet, chances are that your transaction went through one of the big credit card companies--they've become the de facto standard platform for remote purchases. That's a huge cash cow, built on a framework with little transparency or real competition. As we move more and more of our economy online, their dominance is basically a license for a small number of corporations to print money.

But mostly BitCoin just leaves me melancholy. It's a dream by and for people who have missed the real lesson of Internet commerce, which is that it succeeded not because it was independent of the real world economy, but precisely because the two could be linked. Sites like eBay and Amazon were revolutionary because they were built on the same basic mechanisms as regular commercial networks: reputation, reviews, consumer feedback... and of course, plain old dollars. BitCoin (much like seasteading) tries to reduce the messy, human parts of economics to a set of sterile game mechanics. That's not even really libertarianism--it's nihilism, masquerading as a political philosophy.

I'm no great fan of money for its own sake, and I think we could stand to tweak our economic systems a bit, but the concept isn't broken in and of itself. If I thought BitCoin had a chance, I'd probably be worried. But despite its extreme principles, it still has to compete in the same marketplace of ideas as everything else--and I'm pretty sure nobody's buying what they're selling.

September 22, 2008

Filed under: politics»issues»economy

Bailing Out the Boiler Room

As Congress considers spending $700 billion to bail out irresponsible (and often fraudulent) lenders, I'd just like to draw people's attention to the Columbia Journalism Review's lengthy essay on the topic, which performs two roles: it's perfectly readable, and it gets to the heart of the systematic corruption and neglect behind the crisis.

Conventional wisdom says that the mortgage crisis is a hard story to cover, since it's based in a lot of esoteric debt-trading transactions. But as the CJR points out, that's a clear case of not seeing the forest for the trees. At the most basic level, this is not a complicated narrative: due to a lack of regulation, investment firms created pressure for lenders to take advantage of homebuyers by extending them loans that they couldn't hope to repay. It's a classic American story of big businesses screwing over the little guy. That it has largely been presented as some kind of vast, nebulous market failure reflects, I think, an incredulity of the press to believe that the situation could actually be that corrupt. One would hope that it's finally becoming clear.

August 5, 2008

Filed under: politics»issues»economy

Why Oh Why Can't We Have A Better Economic Overclass?

or: They Teach the Children of California

It was annoying, but not dramatically so, when Brad Delong decided to deride a perhaps-misguided professor who, teaching a class on globalization, urged his students to consider the abusive practices that might have produced the goods they buy:

Yet he keeps buying them anyway because he has "a mortgage and child-care expenses." A stupid little Nietzschean wannabe who eagerly indulges in what he believes to be grave moral turpitude in order to save a few bucks.

It is probably very nice to live comfortably, as DeLong does, where the greatest consumer dilemma on the horizon is whether or not to buy a new iPhone. Many people, however, are not in a situation where they can afford to choose between their morals and their checkbook. Even considering that the "stupid little Nietzschean wannabe" is probably misinformed about the degree to which child and slave labor are employed, the invective still seems a little harsh and out of place.

But his insistence a few days earlier that "if you do not feel the force of [Milton Friedman's] grand argument, you need to think again" is somewhat more galling, particularly given the quotation he provides from Friedman himself:

The United States today is more than 50% socialist in terms of the fraction of our resources that are controlled by the govern ment. Fortunately, socialism is so inefficient that it does not control 50% of our lives.... The really fascinating thing is that our private sector has been so effective, so efficient, that it has been able to produce a standard of life that is the envy of the rest of the world on the basis of less than half the resources available to all of us.

As far as I have ever been able to tell, Friedman's "grand argument" has always basically amounted to sheltered, fanatical free-market boosterism. If all it takes to have a grand argument is to equate some kind of ideological principle directly to vaguely-defined terms like "freedom," then we can all have equally grand arguments, I suspect. And ponies. Speaking personally, I get better grand arguments out of cereal boxes.

But perhaps what has annoyed me most was the post which started it all, DeLong's glowing recommendation of a hit-piece on University of Chicago employees who had the temerity to object to the formation of a Milton Friedman Institute. It's a chunk of writing that, I kid you not, relies on deriding the term "global south" and accusing the writers of attending "fashionable lefty cocktail parties in Venezuela"--in other words, why do these filthy commies hate freedom? And then it tries to claim that China (!) is a fine example of Friedman's free market principles at work.

It's increasingly clear that the quality of my feedreader will be dramatically improved by removing Brad DeLong, and adding in his place Daniel Davies at Crooked Timber, who writes:

China has done very well out of managed opening of its markets and out of introducing capitalism into its domestic economy, but it hasn't followed anything like the kind of policy agenda that's described by neoliberalism, and it's still a very unfree society in political terms. [...] If Cochrane [the original author] is representative of the University of Chicago economics faculty (he says that he's speaking purely for himself, but he seems to have gathered widespread endorsement), and we're to take seriously the idea that the recent history of China is something that the proposed Milton Friedman Institute will be endorsing, analyzing, etc, then that's quite a radical reassessment of the fundamental political basis of Chicago libertarianism.

... I've no idea why so many people are calling it a 'fantastic polemic' -- you could click randomly on a list of right wing blogs and have at least a 50% chance of finding a better cliche-ridden philippic against those terrible left-wing academicessess. I suspect it's the Milton Friedman Reality Distortion Field Generator, the same strange psychophysical device that makes people believe that Friedman was a principled opponent of the PATRIOT Act and never really knew what Pinochet was planning when he recommended that trade union rights should be removed. The MFRDFG is powered by fifty per cent fear of being redbaited and fifty per cent disdain for dirty fucking hippies, and I'd regard it as a harmless intellectual defence mechanism if it didn't generate industrial pollution in the form of toxic criticisms of JK Galbraith and/or Paul Sweezy.

Indeed. I worry about the school of economic thought that insists on opening markets at the expense of anything and everything else. It seems to me like the kind of thing that can come only from an ivory tower--and reminds us that ivory is a bone often forcibly harvested from its former owners.

June 9, 2008

Filed under: politics»issues»economy

Responding to Stimuli

This is not a post about how the Bank makes my taxes a mess, and hence I won't be getting my stimulus check until late. Because I am not the kind of person who would complain about such a thing.

A few weeks ago, my friend Chris P. put up a link on his Facebook feed about a friend's stimulus check. It's on, a site that I had no idea existed, and which I find slightly melancholy. The writer had traded in his stimulus for silver coins from the Federal Mint, as a protest against printing more money as a fix for the economic downturn. I'm not sure I applaud the exact sentiment, but I do find the protest appealing.

It's important to remember, and I think many people are unaware of this, but a stimulus check is not a gift. It's a loan, one that will have to be repaid at some point. It may be repaid by a future generation, and not by us, but the debt is still there. In many ways, it's a bet: the government wagers that by paying us money now, we will be in good economic shape later when the bill comes due. I am not an economist (I only play one on TV), but the wisdom of this policy is not immediately obvious to me. My check will go into savings, personally. I'm lucky that I can afford to do that.

It is interesting to watch the reactions on How I Spent My Stimulus. There are two basic trends that I've noticed. One side is composed of people who are struggling--they're spending the checks on medical expenses, or on home loans, or to pay off their debts. The other trend are people who use the stimulus to buy firearms. Large, shiny, high-caliber firearms.

This country really does scare me sometimes.

March 27, 2008

Filed under: politics»issues»defense

What You Got Wrong

Slate (in addition to various other media outlets) has been running a series of editorials by former Iraq war boosters on why they got the war so horribly wrong, five years later. In other words, why did they think that everything would be rainbows and kittens six months after the invasion?

This is a silly question. It allows these people to look back on their views and pontificate endlessly about how they were fooled, leading to an endless array of excuses. "Oh, the administration was so convincing" (seriously?) or "oh, September 11th made me so angry and afraid" (the one in 2001 that was in no way connected to Iraq?) or "oh, Saddam was a bad, bad man" (your point?).

I have yet to see anyone give what is the correct answer: "Somehow, I believed (despite all the historical evidence) that forcing our way into a country and completely upsetting their political system (not to mention killing a lot of people) would lead to the 52nd State of America. Yes, I am an idiot." Because that's really what it all boils down to, in the end. You can point to a number of intellectual distractions, but the fundamental problem is that pro-war sloganeers believe (note the present tense) that war is a perfectly good initial solution to their international problems.

Sadly, the fact that this is a really obvious error will not stop these people from being paid to offer their opinions for the rest of their natural lives. You get the pundit class you deserve, I guess.

Nobody seems to be particularly interested in paying people who were right about the invasion to expand on their views, perhaps because Daniel Davies already did it about as well as anyone could, for free.

September 11, 2007

Filed under: politics»issues»defense


As Ezra Klein says, 9/11 is no longer a day with any meaning. It's a talking point that we are never allowed to forget, as Bush repeats it over and over with a fanatical ease. I think Ezra's five and a half years too late in saying so, though. The political appropriation took place practically from day one.

There are people who actually lost friends and relatives in the 2001 attacks. There are people who saw the devastation in New York, who were profoundly affected. Those people deserve respect. Out of that respect, I have little to say to them.

And then there is the rest of the country, who have never stopped talking about how "9/11 changed everything." I don't think it's crass to point out that Fleawallow, USA (population: practically nobody) probably didn't lose anyone six years ago, and has never been in any real danger. But as a country, we lept at the chance to gnash our teeth and wring our hands--which is all well and good, except that we never stopped.

Six years later, Americans have squeezed as much angst and increasingly-hollow emotional resonance as we could from those deaths, to the point where I wonder if we are not actually enjoying it a little. All I would like us to consider is that perhaps we should see what it's like moving out from under their shadow. The attacks in 2001 were a tragedy, but they do not define us.

In the previous two years, I eschewed commemorating the eleventh day of September. Today I only mention it in the hopes that I will not feel like doing so again.

July 19, 2007

Filed under: politics»issues»economy»corporate

Street People

If you have ever wanted to see the evil, exploitative face of the overclass, look no further than this article on Costco:

"At Costco, one of Mr. Sinegal's cardinal rules is that no branded item can be marked up by more than 14 percent, and no private-label item by more than 15 percent. In contrast, supermarkets generally mark up merchandise by 25 percent, and department stores by 50 percent or more.

"They could probably get more money for a lot of items they sell," said Ed Weller, a retailing analyst at ThinkEquity.


IF shareholders mind Mr. Sinegal's philosophy, it is not obvious: Costco's stock price has risen more than 10 percent in the last 12 months, while Wal-Mart's has slipped 5 percent. Costco shares sell for almost 23 times expected earnings; at Wal-Mart the multiple is about 19. Mr. Dreher said Costco's share price was so high because so many people love the company. "It's a cult stock," he said.

Emme Kozloff, an analyst at Sanford C. Bernstein & Company, faulted Mr. Sinegal as being too generous to employees, noting that when analysts complained that Costco's workers were paying just 4 percent toward their health costs, he raised that percentage only to 8 percent, when the retail average is 25 percent.

"He has been too benevolent," she said. "He's right that a happy employee is a productive long-term employee, but he could force employees to pick up a little more of the burden."

Mr. Sinegal says he pays attention to analysts' advice because it enforces a healthy discipline, but he has largely shunned Wall Street pressure to be less generous to his workers.

"When Jim talks to us about setting wages and benefits, he doesn't want us to be better than everyone else, he wants us to be demonstrably better," said John Matthews, Costco's senior vice president for human resources."

This is a company that makes money hand over fist. They have a steady-growth stock. They give consumers a good value. The CEO makes only about $500K per year (which is, believe it or not, frugal). In other words, everyone's happy. And the response from the analysts is to ask why he can't squeeze his workers harder.

In the 1800's, these guys would have been asking if it's not possible to beat the slaves just a bit more.

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