[Plura-list] The Overlapping Infrastructure of Urban Surveillance; How Peter Thiel gamed the Roth IRA for tax-free billions; New York City's 100 worst landlords

Cory Doctorow doctorow at craphound.com
Sat Jun 26 09:33:53 EDT 2021


Today, I'm appearing on a panel at the Locus Awards for Locus Magazine.
Wole Talabi, Paul McAuley, Karen Obsorne and I will discourse on
"Future Tech: Working the Science into Your Fiction" at 13h Pacific.



Today's links

* The Overlapping Infrastructure of Urban Surveillance: A long, tall
graphic depicting the invisible, ubiquitous city spy-grid.

* How Peter Thiel gamed the Roth IRA for tax-free billions: More from
Propublica's Secret IRS Files.

* New York City's 100 worst landlords: Gotta catch 'em all.

* This day in history: 2011, 2016, 2020

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


🙅🏾 The Overlapping Infrastructure of Urban Surveillance

From traffic-cams to mobile device tracking to social media spying and
beyond, the urban landscape has quietly become a locus of ubiquitous
surveillance, without any meaningful debate, let alone democratic
oversight or consent.

"The Overlapping Infrastructure of Urban Surveillance, and How to Fix
It" is a superb, long-ass infographic from EFF's Matthew Guariglia,
depicting a cross-section of urban surveillance, from the satellites in
low-Earth orbit to the deep-sea cable taps.


It's part of EFF's Street-Level Surveillance project, "A Guide to Law
Enforcement Spying Technology," and each of the levels of surveillance
identified in the graphic has a corresponding explanation and action plan.


Included: satellites, internet traffic surveillance, cell tower
surveillance, drones, social media surveillance, cameras, cellphone
surveillance, license plate cameras, shotspotters, CCTVs, electronic
monitoring anklets, police GPS tracking and international net surveillance.

EFF works on all of this both on its own and through the effective local
activism of the Electronic Frontier Alliance, a national network of
autonomous groups that work on things like forcing local cops to get
approval for new surveillance tools.



🙅🏾 How Peter Thiel gamed the Roth IRA for tax-free billions

The Propublica Secret IRS Files is a large tranche of IRS leaks
detailing the tax-structures of the super-wealthy, documenting the ways
in which Leona Helmsley was perfectly correct to assert that "taxes are
for the little people."


The latest reporting examines the way that Peter Thiel and other
billionaires are able to abuse the Roth IRA (a savings vehicle that is
only supposed to be used by middle-class people to save modest sums for
retirement) to evade taxes on billions..


The Roth IRA is named for William Roth Jr, a Reaganite
anti-tax-extremist GOP  Delaware Senator who brokered a new retirement
savings tool with the Clinton administration in 1997, a tool that was
supposed to allow middle-class savings without giving tax-breaks to the

People with middle-class incomes can put away assets worth modest sums -
$2000/year initially - in a savings account, pay tax on them at current
their current value, and then park them until retirement, cashing them
out tax-free.

So you can put $2,000 after-tax dollars' worth of stocks in your IRA
when you're 30, and then sell the stocks for $10,000 when you're 65 and
avoid the 20% capital gains tax you'd normally owe on the $8,000 profit.

The Roth IRA framework makes the whole thing sound like a middle-class
affair. Medium-wage earners can salt away small-dollar bets on stocks,
bonds and other assets, and avoid tax on successful bets when they're
ready to retire.

But the wealthy immediately discovered exploitable loopholes in these
guard-rails. When Theil - already rich but not yet ultrawealthy -
cofounded Paypal, he was able to draw only a nominal wage, while taking
the bulk of his compensation in stock.

Drawing a peppercorn wage made the millionaire hedge-fund manager Peter
Thiel a "middle-class earner" for the purposes of the Roth IRA. That
meant he could put away $2,000 worth of assets and pay no tax on their
appreciation when he turned 65.

The asset Thiel bought for $2,000 and stashed in his IRA? Paypal stock.
A *lot* of Paypal stock. Thiel and his partners declared Paypal's stock
to be worth  $0.001/share, which meant Thiel could shelter *1.7 million
shares* in his Roth IRA.

Today, those shares are worth *$5 billion*, and Thiel can draw them at
65 without paying any tax on them - neither the ~40% tax that he'd pay
if they were income, nor the 20% sweetheart capital gains rate the IRS
gives to people who earn money by gambling, not working.

Defenders of the Roth IRA - and the tax-free lifestyles of US
billionaires - insist that these tax "strategies" are available to rich
and poor alike, but an examination of the Thiel story reveals a
different system for the super rich, the merely rich, and the rest of us.

Yes, it's true that on paper anyone in Thiel's positions could do what
Thiel did. But as Anatole France said more than a century ago, "The law,
in its majestic equality, forbids rich and poor alike to sleep under
bridges, to beg in the streets, and to steal their bread."

Most of us can't found a company and not draw a salary while still
paying our bills, taking stock-based compensation instead, thus
receiving most of our income as tax-advantaged capital gains instead of

Even if you're in that lucky few, most of us can't afford to hire fixers
who will - with a straight face - sign off on a valuation of the stock
in a business that had already received large cash investments at $0.001
(Propublica's tax experts all but call this a fraud).

Thiel was able to sell some of the Paypal shares in his Roth IRA and
then use the money to buy sweetheart-priced shares in Facebook (on whose
board he sits) as well as in Palantir, the
human-rights-abuses-as-a-service company he founded.

Thiel has been very public in his contempt for taxes, characterizing
them as class warfare waged on the rich by unworthy governments. Thiel
says his anti-tax extremism is just part of his deep ideological
commitment to libertarianism, but that's a very selective commitment.

What are we to make of a libertarian who founds a company to supply
governments with secret surveillance tools, who secretly funds a
pretextual lawsuit to bankrupt journalists who upset him, who says
"competition is for losers," and women shouldn't be allowed to vote?

While "the marketplace of ideas," universal self-determination and
limits on coercive state power are not part of Thiel's libertarianism,
avoiding taxes on the fortunes he makes are firmly within its remit.

In this regard, Thiel is firmly aligned with other billionaires,
including advocates for fairer taxes, like Warren Buffet. Indeed, Justin
Elliott, Patricia Callahan and James Bandler identify several
billionaires who have evaded taxes on titanic sums by gaming the Roth IRA.

One thing that distinguishes Thiel from other plutes, though, is his
willingness to scold the rest of us, as he did when he told us mortals
to "save, save, save...Forgo the new kitchen and sundeck...“Living
modestly and saving well is better than dying broke."


🙅🏾 New York City's 100 worst landlords

Treating shelter - a human right and necessity that sits just above food
on the hierarchy of needs - as a commodity inevitably pits the creation
and maintenance of wealth against the survival of the people for whom a
home is a place to live, not an asset.

American prosperity has historically come from two sources -
intergenerational wealth accumulation through family homes; and gains
made by organized labor that increased wages and improved working

Both kinds of mobility were unevenly distributed on racial lines, but of
the two, the more universal was always labor protections, not extreme
measures to increase property prices. For 40 years, we've been whittling
away at labor rights and going all in on property prices.

Convincing middle-class people to accept extreme measures to drive up
the prices of housing (and thus the value of their single major asset)
rather than labor rights - including adequate pensions, affordable
education, and universal health care - was a clever gambit.

It split working people, convincing those who'd bought their homes with
their labor gains to betray the next generation of workers, in the name
of defending their kids' futures, which were riding on huge gains from
property prices, not employment.


But the people best poised to benefit from soaring property prices
weren't family homeowners - they were super-rich property speculators,
who used the army of middle-class simps for "investors" to dismantle
eviction and rent protections while gobbling up whole neighborhoods.

This is particularly visible in NYC, where speculators use rent-gouging
and the savings of slum conditions to extract high profits that can be
used to stave off legal consequences for their criminal conduct, in the
market with the second-highest rents in the country.

NYC documentary filmmaker Jeff Seal investigates this phenomenon with
enormous humor and substance in "This is New York City's Worst
Landlord," a three-part, 60-minute Youtube documentary.




Seal's goal is to meet all 100 of the 100 worst landlords in NYC, as
determined by the city's public advocate watchlist, an annual
leaderboard that names and shames the individuals who hold thousands of
families' peace and prosperity in their hands.

But the point of the doc is that none of these people can be found. As
the tenants of their buildings can tell you, neither they nor their
property managers answer the phone - not when the ceiling caves in, not
when vermin run across your sleeping child.

They hide behind LLCs and get their mail at anonymous private mailboxes.
They own dozens of real, solid buildings but are themselves as
immaterial as ghosts. Seal takes it upon himself to track them down.

He holds a telethon where he and his friends call all 100 landlords. He
speaks to their tenants. He stakes out their PO boxes. He crashes their
offices, doorsteps them, tries to hand out trophies and plaques
commemorating their top-scoring performances as terrible landlords.

He does all this and more, like going undercover at a landlord
convention where a contractor promises him that they can run jackhammers
until any rent-control tenants move out, and a landlord explains how he
harasses tenants' rights organizers.

They call the cops on him, high-powered lawyers threaten him - like a
housing advocate's version of Roger and Me. The movie ends with the
pandemic, the looming eviction crisis, and groundbreaking NY tenant
protection laws voted in despite Cuomo's advocacy for landlords.

The eviction moratorium is about to expire. When it does, a bomb will go
off for families - a bomb that destroys their homes, sends them to live
in their cars or shelters or on sofas, slipping into a situation few escape.

Seal is very funny, and incandescently angry, and the story he tells
couldn't be more timely. It's a hell of a way to spend an hour.


🙅🏾 This day in history

#10yrsago TSA asked 95 year old woman in a wheelchair in terminal stage
of leukemia to remove adult diaper for pat-down

#5yrsago The blacker a city is, the more it fines its residents
(especially black ones)

#5yrsago Australian educational contractor warns of wifi, vaccination
danger to “gifted” kids’ “extra neurological connections”

#5yrsago Beyond “solutionism”: what role can technology play in solving
deep social problems

#1yrago Splash Mountain to purge Song of the South

#1yrago Talking Job Guarantee with Pavlina Tcherneva

Colophon (permalink)

Today's top sources: Waxy (https://waxy.org/).

Currently writing:

* Spill, a Little Brother short story about pipeline protests.
Wednesday's progress: 251 words (7056 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: Inside The Clock Tower

Upcoming appearances:

* Future Tech: Working the Science into Your Fiction (Locus Awards), Jun
26, https://locusmag.com/2021-locus-awards-weekend/

* Launch for Neil Sharpson's When the Sparrow Falls (Mysterious Galaxy),

Upcoming appearances:

* Future Tech: Working the Science into Your Fiction (Locus Awards), Jun
26, https://locusmag.com/2021-locus-awards-weekend/

* Launch for Neil Sharpson's When the Sparrow Falls (Mysterious Galaxy),

Recent appearances:

* Big Tech Fix, Feet to the Fire podcast:

* The ACCESS Act, Consumer Reports:

* Raging Chicken podcast:

Latest book:

* "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

* "How to Destroy Surveillance Capitalism": an anti-monopoly pamphlet
analyzing the true harms of surveillance capitalism and proposing a
(print edition:
(signed copies:

* "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:

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

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