[Plura-list] Facebook's morale problem; My HOPE keynote this Sat; Changes coming to UK's feudal "leaseholds"

Cory Doctorow doctorow at craphound.com
Fri Jul 24 14:16:02 EDT 2020

Today's links

* Facebook's morale problem: Facebookers worry that they're destroying

* My HOPE keynote this Sat: We Used to Have Cake, Now We've Barely Got

* Changes coming to UK's feudal "leaseholds": Britain's rentier class
loses, a little.

* Konstantine Anthony for Burbank City Council: All politics are local.

* Private equity doesn't create value, it destroys it: Wealth
accumulation doesn't signify value-creation.

* Mass market book sales surge: But it's just trading one monopolist for

* This day in history: 2005, 2010, 2015, 2019

* Colophon: Recent publications, upcoming appearances, current writing
projects, current reading


🏂🏿 Facebook's morale problem

An important Buzzfeed piece by Ryan Mac and Craig Silverman uses leaks
and insider accounts from Facebook to paint a picture of a company where
morale is in freefall, as techies are forced to confront their role in a
sociopathic institution.


As America descends into authoritarian violence and faces an election
which a criminal strongman has signalled his intention to steal (or
discredit), these high-waged, intelligent workers are coming to realize
that the firm will happily trade civilization for its own profits.

And so you get the spectacle of thousands of workers walking off the
job, or joining internal dissent groups, or resigning and posting long
(leaked) videos that quote liberally from Hannah Arendt to explain why
they can no longer stomach working at the company.

Facebook management cloaks its abetting of fascism in the language of
"free speech" and "consistency" but both of these principles are
routinely jettisoned when they are inconvenient.

FB stumbled into its role of fascist enabler, but, like the business
people who enabled the rise of midcentury fascist strongmen, Facebook
may think of fascists as regrettable thugs, but it's 100% behind their
commitments to low tax, low regulation, and lax labor standards.

We often forget that fascism isn't mere authoritarianism: it is the
merger of authoritarianism with business, a form of state capitalism in
which business and the government become interpenetrated with one another.

And since reality has a well-known left-wing bias, Facebook has often
angered the fascists it hopes to please by reflecting reality. This is a
high-risk business, because fascists are committed to nothing except
themselves: Trump loves FB when it helps Trump.

When it gets in his way, he will do anything he can to destroy it. Which
is why FB's real policy decisions aren't being made by its integrity
team. They are routinely overridden by Joel Kaplan, an ex-Bush advisor
now serving as VP of policy.

Kaplan - a rape apologist who sat behind Kavanaugh to lend support
during the confirmation - is the firm's direct line to would-be fascists
in the GOP.  He's behind the company's rule-rigging to enable Trump to
get away with saying whatever he wants.


He's the one who suppressed the company's own internal research that
showed they were "sowing division" by allowing disinformation campaigns
to spread.


Every horror of technological "progress" has been regretted by its
inventors. The problem is that the Oppenheimers typically wait until
AFTER the mushroom cloud is rising on the horizon to express their doubts.

We need earlybird Oppenheimers! Even during the pandemic, Facebookers
can walk into amazing, high-paid work at a variety of firms. They don't
even need to choose between their families' groceries and their conscience.

The FB employees who are blazing their way out the door with 20-minute
video denunciations could be the first wave of a mass exodus. As
powerful as FB is, it depends utterly on a scarce, irreplaceable pool of
technical and engineering talent.

Shandes like Kaplan are absolutely replaceable. The engineers who down
tools and turn in their badges? Not so much.


🏂🏿 My HOPE keynote this Sat

This Saturday at 1PM Pacific, I'm giving a keynote address to HOPE 2020:
the 13th Hackers on Planet Earth con, put on by 2600 magazine. This is
the first all-virtual year, and I am so there for it.


My talk is called "We Used to Have Cake, Now We've Barely Got Icing."
It's a totally brand new talk, the first time I've ever tried to
publicly articulate this big, unifying thesis I've been developing about
monopoly, totalitarianism, tech and IP.

Normally, talks evolve: I have an idea and I talk about it, revise it,
talk about it again, revise it, etc. But every so often, there's a kind
of bolt-from-the-blue that makes me rethink my whole approach. That's
what happened about a month ago.

I'm rarely nervous before a talk, but I'm nervous about this one. I DO
NOT want to screw this up. It's an important idea for me and I am not at
all confident I can get it across. But it's important enough that I am
going to try my damndest.

Here's the description I wrote for the program book:

When free software licensing was born, software copyrights were
essentially nonexistent, software patents didn't exist at all, terms of
service weren't enforceable and there was no anti-circumvention law.

In other words, you were legally permitted to clone or interoperate with
any digital product. Today, we think of free software as a way for a
company to say, "We probably won't sue you if you write code that can
interoperate with ours."

But when free software started, it was more like, "I know I've got the
absolute legal right to reverse engineer all your code and make a
competing product, but that's such tedious work. Please, make it easy
for me by giving me your source code."

Back then, free software was icing on the cake. Then they stole the cake
and left us hoping for a little icing every now and then.

I hope you can make it! And I hope if you do, I don't screw it up!


🏂🏿 Changes coming to UK's feudal "leaseholds"

When I first moved to the UK, I noticed all my friends who lived in
flats were always complaining about "freeholders." The first few times I
asked to have this explained, I assumed that I'd just misunderstood,
because there was no way the system was that fucking terrible.

Nope. It's that terrible.

In the US and much of the rest of the world, if you own an apartment in
a multi-unit dwelling, the whole building is structured as a condo, or
maybe a co-op. You elect a board and they decide how to maintain the
building and charge fees accordingly.

But not in the UK. There, the building is owned by a "freeholder" and
when you buy a flat, you buy a "lease." The leases are typically very
long - 99 or even 999 (!) years - and at that timescale, it's pretty
similar to actually buying a place, but there are real differences.

The freeholder is not elected. They get to charge you "ground rent" - a
sum defined in the lease - and they unilaterally decide how to maintain
your building and what you will pay for it.

Periodically, you have to renew your lease (which is expensive!)  and if
you forget to or can't afford to, you lose your home. Lease renewals
have some statutory controls, but they're weak.

And since lease renewals are the kind of thing you might do every 25
years, it's certainly possible that it will slip your mind. "OK Google.
Remind me in 25 years to renew my lease."

Eventually, I became a leaseholder, and worse, I was a leaseholder in a
building that was 75% commercial, which meant that we "tenants" were not
able to force our freeholder to sell to us.

Our freeholder was - and is - a fucking bastard. This was true when our
freeholder was a random plute, a literal rentier in desperate need of a

But it remained true when our freehold was bought by a charitable social
housing association as a revenue generator for their subsidized housing
blocks. If anything, they were even bigger bastards.

Of course, you don't actually ever deal with your freeholder. Like every
shitty feudal grift, the freeholder is insulated from the tenants by
several layers of indirection.

Even freeholder's agents - shiny-suited scumbags who ignored, abused or
sidelined us - hired subcontractors to deal with us. These were giant
companies like Tuckerman who did such shoddy work that it would have
been hilarious if it wasn't terrible.

Just for an example: they took *10 months* to replace the light in the
stairwell leading up to the flats.

But as bad as that was, the fees were the most brutal and farcical element.

They're not merely sky high and terrible value for money - they
sometimes came with NASTY surprises.

Like the morning that a builder knocked on our door and told us that the
freeholder had unilaterally decided to "upgrade" the block with new
doors, windows and cladding.

That very (winter) morning - with no notice - the builders REMOVED ALL
OUR WINDOWS AND DOORS and left us without for several days.

When it was done, we had a bill for £10k for our share of the
"upgrades," and if we didn't pay it straightaway, we would lose our home.

The thing about the leaseholder/freeholder split is that it preys on
affluent people like us (the rental market preys on poor people in much
more ghastly ways, of course). Preying on affluent people, even in the
plutelicking Kingdom of Great Britain, is a fraught business.

That's why, this week, the Law Commission published a landmark report
that affects every one of the UK's 4.3m leaseholders, laying out
dramatic reforms to the system:


The Commission had already made improvements to the "enfranchisement"
process for buying out or extending your lease, reducing the cost of
either by about a third  (but they didn't create a simple formula to
give leaseholders badly needy surety).


The new report recommends automatic, free extensions of leases to 990
years, with no ground rent and makes "dramatic" reductions to the cost
of buying out your lease altogether.

It creates a simple path to taking over the maintenance of your
building, cutting out the fucking Tuckermans of the world.

It mandates all new housing be "commonhold" (more like condos or
co-ops), which is bad news for greedy developers, 90% of whose flats are

The Commission's report isn't law, it's recommendation that the housing
minister, the despicable Tory Luke Hall must now act upon. He yawned to
The Guardian, "We will carefully consider the recommendations, which are
a significant milestone."

Meanwhile, Hall is busily giving the guillotinable landlords of Britain
some handsome gifts, like the right to add two storeys to any block
without planning permission, a £20b to freeholders for doing nothing.

These freeholders will be able to use the phantom two stories to extract
higher sums from leaseholders seeking to buy out their freeholds.


🏂🏿 Konstantine Anthony for Burbank City Council

You may have noticed that there are some elections coming up here in the
USA - perhaps you've seen the odd bit of news coverage.

Well, all politics are local, so let me bend your ear a moment about the
city council race here in my adopted hometown of Burbank.

Burbank is a charming, well-kept, heavily unionized small city in LA
County of 100,000 people. It's a company town: from my home I can walk
to the studio gates of Disney, Warner or Universal. I can also walk to
about 20 union halls for their skilled trades and talent.

Burbank's got fantastic public amenities: well-kept roads, a responsive
sanitation department, amazing libraries, a huge, gorgeous outdoor
heated year-round Olympic pool, some of the best schools in LA County,
and more.

But it's also got a mean streak. There's a massive shortage of
affordable housing, the result of a combination of anti-highrise
NIMBYism and rampant property speculation.

It's the only city in the region that still allows no-fault evictions -
so in the runup to January's statewide rent-control bill, landlords
turfed out waves of Burbank families, retirees and working people.

Our schools are under serious threat, thanks largely to this asshole,
who worked with a predatory lawfirm that serially destroyed small
cities' operating capital by courting sociopaths who'd wade through an
ocean of blood to save $0.05 in taxes.


Worse still, our city failed to pass a VERY modest parcel-tax increase
to make up the shortfall, losing by less than one percent (they need a
supermajority of 65% to pass, they got 64.12%).


Burbankers - like everyone else in the region - have been completely
reliant on internet access during the crisis. Burbank actually owns a
100GB/s fiber loop financed at public expense, but we Burbankers cannot
use the fiber we bought.

The city's franchise agreement with Charter - one of the worst ISPs,
whose CEO took home the 4th-highest compensation in the nation last year
even as his techs were denied PPE and danger pay - forbids it. We have
to buy slow, overpriced internet from this cable monopolist.

We need new councillors, ones who will make a difference. Konstantine
Anthony is a Democratic Socialist candidate who ran a strong - but
ultimately unsuccessful - campaign in 2018, and he's running again. I
endorse him and donated to both campaigns.

Anthony ran the anti-eviction campaign last December, and has laid out a
program that shows real vision and leadership for our city:


Anthony is a person with a disability, a single father caring for a son
who also has a disability. He's an Uber driver and a community
organizer. He understands the lives of working people here in Burbank.

Tomorrow, the local DSA will debate whether to officially endorse his
campaign (he's already got the Sunrise Movement endorsement):


His campaign officially kicks off on Sunday at noon PST:



🏂🏿 Private equity doesn't create value, it destroys it

Private equity is pretty weird. Not only do they use some incredibly
baroque tactics to loot and destroy productive businesses (while getting
remarkably, stonkingly wealthy), but they claim that doing this is
"adding value."

Just look at this awesome value-creation!

They killed Hertz!


And AMC!


They stole hundreds of millions from the PPP bailouts for "small


They're gunning for your pension:


They're SO BAD at pensions that the Republican AG of KENTUCKY is suing
the two biggest PE funds in the world, along with their CEOs, personlly:


An excellent and ghastly microcosm of PE misconduct and crime is they
way that PE has destroyed the nation's healthcare system, especially its
emergency rooms, which are a thing we could sure use right now:


Writing for Newsweek, Oren Cass makes a detailed, easy-to-follow case
for PE as a system that "captures value" rather than creating it.

When PE buys a company and loads it up with debt, fires employees, cuts
wages and squeezes suppliers, keeping prices stable, no "value" has been
created. All that's happened is that value was transfered from
productive workers and productive suppliers to unproductive looters.

"Resources that previously flowed to local businesses and families were
rerouted to private equity partners and their lawyers and bankers in New

That's the *best* case! Most PE money comes from "financial
engineering," litigation, lobbying, price-hikes, or "outright looting of

The reason all this matters is because the normal argument in favor of
PE is that markets reward value creation with returns. So if you're
rich, you did something good.

PE is a way to get rich by destroying value. By doing bad things.

Cass cites scholarship to support his claims. For example, this report
showing that, following PE acquisitions,  we see a "sharp increase in
debt, "revenue growth slowed" and "[capital expenditure] spending as a
percentage of sales declined."


PE's business model is: "take control of businesses to increase debt and
redirect spending from capital expenditures and other forms of
investment toward paying down that debt. As a result, or in tandem, the
growth of the business slows."

An Oxford researcher found that "This wealth transfer from several
hundred million pension scheme members to a few thousand people working
in private equity might be one of the largest in the history of modern


All this crowded out investment in productive businesses: "Net private
domestic investment fell from nearly 1/10 of US GDP in the mid-1980s, to
less than half of that by 2018. As a percent of corporate profits, it
declined from nearly 100% in the 1980s to less than 40%."


🏂🏿 Mass market book sales surge

If you're into books, you might know that some books are called "trade
paperbacks" and others are called "mass market paperbacks."

These distinctions have their origins in the creation of the "mass
market" for books - when enterprising salespeople like Tom Doherty and
Ian Ballantine figured out how to sell books outside of bookstores.

They pioneered a new "trim size" for paperbacks that could fit into
"spinner racks" at grocery stores and pharmacies. This was a revolution
in publishing. Prior to the mass market, only people who chose to go
into bookstores were exposed to books.

You can see how this is a self-limiting move: bookstores are great if
you love books, but how do you fall in love with books if you never go
into a bookstore?

Across America *hundreds* of distributors sprung up to serve local stores.

Their unionized teamsters may not have had literature degrees, but they
did get bonuses if the books they stocked in the racks' pockets sold,
and they had to haul away unsold inventory.

Small routes served by lifers who got to know the local literary tastes
led to an explosion of different kinds of literature that was
practically hand-sold to readers via these distributors' truck drivers.

But after Reagan dismantled antitrust law, there were waves of grocery
and pharmacy consolidation, leading to massive national chains like
Walmart, Costco, K-Mart, CVS, Walgreens, etc.

These companies weren't willing to open 400 accounts with 400
distributors. They demanded - and got - a matching consolidation in
distributorship, until there were only about 3 national distributors
doing the work that hundreds had done before.

Centralized buyers for the chains led to an extinction-level event for
the mass-market marketplace, replacing thousands of paperbacks sold
nationwide at a time with mere dozens. Good-selling writers were wiped
out, and their publishers started to merge, too.

During the pandemic lockdown, most bookstores are shuttered or operating
on an extremely limited basis, and this has led to a surge of
mass-market purchasing from the big-box retailers.


A nation hungry for diversion has driven up sales for print books (it
probably helps that after a day of screen-based work and Zoom meetings,
the last thing you want is to relax with a fucking ebook).

Grocery stores and pharmacies are getting much-needed boosts from these
book sales, and they're also keeping publishers in business, so that's
all good news.

The bad news is that the mass-market's variety remains anemic compared
to the incredible cambrian diversity of the pre-Reagan spinner racks.

But the good news is that the mass-market remains vital: there are
millions of potential readers!

Today, those readers might never visit a bookstore, even if they could.
But if we can get them to fall in love, they might become lifelong
readers. And the best way to do that is to return pluralism to the mass

It's yet another way that surging support for antitrust and
pro-competition regulation could benefit every industry - and every
person who depends on that industry as a supplier or a customer.


🏂🏿 This day in history

#15yrsago Would you give a fiver a month for a UK tech/civil liberties
org? https://www.pledgebank.com/rights

#15yrsago Phone company blocks access to telecoms union's website

#15yrsago War on Terror as a series of Unix shell interactions

#10yrsago The comics Bill Watterson sent to Berkeley Breathed

#5yrsago Jamaica's new copyright means Jamaicans pay for reggae the rest
of the world gets free

#5yrsago Georgia sues Carl Malamud, calls publishing state laws

#5yrsago London terror cops forced to admit they're still investigating
journos who reported Snowden leaks

#5yrsago Chrysler has to recall its cars due to security vulnerabilities

#5yrsago WWE fires Hulk Hogan after racist sex tape tirade exposed in
court https://tinyurl.com/y2umbvwg

#1yrago Because Internet: the new linguistics of informal English

#1yrago AP: the mob who attacked Hong Kong protesters were rural thugs
hired by gangsters https://apnews.com/4867ea5aafbd45b78eb1747b8b84c04f

#1yrago A generalized method for re-identifying people in "anonymized"

#1yrago William Barr's terrible, stupid idea to ban working crypto is
slightly less terrible and stupid than earlier ideas

#1yrago E-scooter companies are desperate for repo men to stop
impounding their vehicles

#1yrago Share prices slide as DOJ announces sweeping antitrust
investigations of Big Tech


🏂🏿 Colophon

Today's top sources: Kottke (https://kottke.org/), Naked Capitalism
(https://www.nakedcapitalism.com/), Slashdot (https://slashdot.org/).

Currently writing:

* My next novel, "The Lost Cause," a post-GND novel about truth and
reconciliation. Today's progress: 552 words (41303 total).

Currently reading: Anger Is a Gift by Mark Oshiro

Latest podcast: Full Employment:

Upcoming appearances:

* Keynote, A Midsummer Night's Con, Jul 27,

* Virtual event with Christopher Brown for his novel "Failed State," Aug

Latest book:

* "Little Brother/Homeland": A reissue omnibus edition with a new
introduction by Edward Snowden:
https://us.macmillan.com/books/9781250774583; personalized/signed copies

* "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:

Upcoming books:

* "Attack Surface": The third Little Brother book, Oct 20, 2020.

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

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