[Plura-list] Podcasting "Qualia"; Lazy Congress only schedules 9 days' work this summer

Cory Doctorow doctorow at craphound.com
Mon Jun 28 11:43:46 EDT 2021

Today's links

* Podcasting "Qualia": My column on quant-bias, antitrust, drug policy
and epidemiology.

* Lazy Congress only schedules 9 days' work this summer: We're not
paying you to party on donors' yachts.

* This day in history: 2006, 2011, 2016

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


👨‍👩‍👧‍👦 Podcasting "Qualia"

This week on my podcast, I read "Qualia," my May, 2021 Locus Magazine
column about quantitative bias, epidemiology, antitrust and drug policy.
It's a timely piece, given the six historic antitrust laws that passed
the House Judiciary Committee last week:


The pandemic delivered some hard lessons about quantitative bias -
that's when you pay attention to the parts of a problem that you can do
math on, not because they're the most important, but because you know
how to do math.

The most obvious lesson comes from the failure of exposure notification
apps, which were supposed to take the place of "shoe-leather" contact
tracing, wherein a public health workers establish personal rapport with
infected people to help identify others who might be at risk.

Contact tracing is a human process, built on trust: trust enough to talk
about the intimate details of your life, trust enough to take advice on
how to get tested and whether you should self-isolate.

That's not what apps do.

Exposure notification apps measure whether a Bluetooth device you
registered was close to another Bluetooth device for a "clinically
significant" period of time.

That's it.

They don't measure qualitative aspects, like whether you were close to
an infected person because you were in the same traffic jam in adjacent,
sealed automobiles - or whether you were both at the Ft Lauderdale
eyeball-licking championship.

And they certainly don't create the personal rapport that's needed to
understand each person's idiosyncratic health circumstances and
complications - whether they need child care, or are at risk of losing
their under-the-table jobs if they self-isolate.

We didn't want to commit the resources to do contact tracing at scale,
we didn't know how to automate it - but we *did* know how to automate
exposure notification, so we incinerated the qualitative elements and
declared the dubious quantitative residue to be sufficient.

It's the quant's version of searching for your car keys under the
lamp-post because it's too dark where you dropped them.

It's not just foolish, it's also deceptive -  quantizing qualitative
elements is a subjective exercise that produces numbers that *seem*

This is where antitrust law comes in. Prior to the neoliberal revolution
of the Reagan years, antitrust concerned itself with "harmful
dominance," with regulators asking whether mergers and commercial
practices were bad for the world.

Obviously, "bad for the world" is hard to measure. Regulators evaluated
claims from all corners: both political scientists worried about the
outsized lobbying power of large companies and workers worried about
monopolies' outsized power over wages and conditions got a say.

So did environmentalists, urban planners, and yes, economists, too.

The Chicago School - hard-right conservative economists with cult-like
status among Reagan and big business simps - insisted that all this
qualitative stuff had to go.

They argued that consideration of qualitative elements left too much up
to judges, so two similar companies engaged in similar conduct might get
different verdicts out of the antitrust system. This, they said, make a
mockery of the notion of "equal treatment before the law."

Instead, the Chicago Boys - led by Robert Bork, a Nixonite criminal and
a sort of court sorcerer to Reagan - demanded that qualitative measures
be left behind in favor of a purely quantitative analysis of whether a
monopoly hurt "consumer welfare."

The way you'd measure "consumer welfare" was by checking to see whether
a monopoly was making prices go up - if not, the monopoly was deemed
"efficient" and thus socially beneficial. Prices are numbers, numbers
can be measured.

But that's not how it worked in practice. When two companies wanted to
merge, they could hire a Chicago fixer to construct a mathematical model
that "proved" that they resulting megafirm would not raise prices.

No one could argue with this, because Chicago School consultants had a
monopoly over building and interpreting these models - the same way
court magicians laid exclusive claim to the ability to slaughter an
animal and read the future in its guts.

And if the prices *did* go up? Well, the same Chicago model-makers would
be paid to produce a new model to prove that the price-rises were not
the result of monopoly, but rather, rising energy costs or higher wages
or the moon being in Venus.

Even by their own lights, "consumer welfare" was a failure. Monopolies
drive prices up. Amazon Prime is a tool to drive up prices in every
store, not just Amazon:


Apple's App Store monopoly drives up app prices:


Luxxotica bought every eyewear brand and every eyewear retailer and the
world's largest optical lens manufacturer and drove prices up *1000%*:


The highly concentrated pharma industry raises prices every single year:


What's more, there's a straight line from "consumer welfare" to

Think about publishing. A decade ago, the Big Six publishers were
embroiled in a bid to force Amazon to raise ebook prices, which led to
fines and settlements for harming "consumer welfare."

Today, the Big Six publishers are the Big Four, because Random House,
the largest publisher in the world, gobbled up Penguin and Simon &
Schuster. When RH, S&S and Penguin were three companies, it was illegal
for them to collude on pricing.

But after their mergers, the three former CEOs - now presidents of
divisions within an unimaginably giant company - can meet in a board
room and plan exactly the same price-fixing strategy, and that isn't
illegal under "consumer welfare" antitrust - it's "efficient."

The Chicago School's "consumer welfare" was only ever a front for
"shareholder welfare," the ability of large firms to avoid "wasteful
competition" and extract an ever-larger share of the take for
shareholders at the expense of customers, workers and the public.

The entire business of "consumer welfare" is a fraud, starting with
Robert Bork's insistence that a close reading of the US's four major
antitrust laws will reveal that they were never intended to be used for
any purpose *other* than consumer welfare protections.

This is manifestly untrue, a Qanon-grade conspiracy that is refuted by
the plain language of the statutes, the statements of their sponsors,
and the record of the Congressional debates leading to their passage.

Despite the wealth of evidence that US antitrust is not a "consumer
welfare" project, neoliberals have insisted that their project was not
"reforming" antitrust, but rather, "restoring" it to its original purpose.

It's a Big Lie, and they know it. That's why GOP Senators Mike Lee (UT)
and Chuck Grassley (IA) introduced "The TEAM Act to Reform Antitrust
Law" - a bill intended to neutralize the muscular new antitrust bills
that just passed the House committee.


The bill does two things:

I) It takes antitrust authority away from the FTC, sidelining the
incredible Lina Khan, a once-in-a-generation antitrust scholar who now
runs the agency; and

II) It codifies "consumer welfare" as the basis for US antitrust law.

That second part is the tell: after 40 years of insisting that any
rational reading of US antitrust proved that "consumer welfare" was
obviously its sole purpose, they're now introducing a law to *change*
its purpose to "consumer welfare."

Like the Stolen Election lie, they never truly believed this one. The
pose of objectivity that quantizing antitrust allowed was never about
creating a truly objective standard for competition policy - it was only
ever about neutering competition policy.

The thing is, there *is* a way to integrate both the objective and
subjective into policy-making - as was demonstrated by David Nutt's 2008
leadership of the UK's Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs, which
established the policy framework for a wide range of drugs.

Nutt's panel of experts rated drugs based on how harmful they were to
their users, the users' families, and wider society. This allowed him to
sort drugs into three categories:

I. Drugs that were dangerous irrespective of your public health priorities;

II. Drugs that were safe irrespective of your public health priorities; and

III. Drugs whose safety changed based on whether you prioritized the
safety of users, families or society.

Those priorities are a political choice, not an empirical finding. Nutt
told Parliament that it was their job to establish those subjective
priorities, and once they did, he could objectively tell them how to
embody them in the rules for each drug.

This is a beautiful example of how the objective and subjective fit
together in policy - and the tale of what happened next is a terrible
example of how "consumer welfare" hurts us all.

You see, booze is one of the most concentrated industries in the world.
The "consumer welfare" standard let booze companies buy one another
until just a handful remain - globe-straddling collosii with ample
resources to influence policy-makers.

Nutt, an empiricist, reported just as rigorously on the harms of booze -
one of the most dangerous drugs in the world - as he did on other drugs.
He was fired for refusing to retract his true statement that tobacco and
alcohol were more dangerous than many banned drugs.

Thanks to "consumer welfare" antitrust, the alcohol industry is able to
choose who its regulators are, and use their political influence -
purchased with the excessive profits of a monopolist - to rid themselves
of pesky officials who actually pursue objective policy.

You can read the column here:


And here's the podcast episode:


As well a direct link to the MP3 (hosting courtesy of the Internet
Archive; they'll host your stuff for free, forever):


And here's a link to my podcast feed:


Lazy Congress only schedules 9 days' work this summer (permalink)

Say what you will about Congressional partisan divisions, there's one
area of unity: the need for self-care.

That's why the House voted to give itself only *9 days* of work between
Jul 2 and Sept 19 (the Senate's workaholics will put in 11 days' work
out of 75 summer days).

I get it. It's been a tough 18 months. Who *isn't* tired?

But Congress *already* works a three-day week (the remaining two days
are spent "dialing for dollars," begging rich people for money in
exchange for making policy that benefits the wealthy).

The country is *already* on fire. Delta-variant Covid cases are spiking.
Buildings are *literally* collapsing. The annual, worsening floods and
tornadoes and hurricanes are headed our way, and the country's emergency
systems are in tatters.

As Ralph Nader writes for Common Dreams, Congress should *not* be taking
*any* summer recess. We're *still* in an all-hands-on-deck emergency -
the crisis is not behind us. Goofing off now is like taking a nap before
you extinguish the mattress fire.


Nader says that Congress's impatience for an easy summer vacation of
drinks on donors' yachts explains why the Senate isn't forcing the GOP
to actually filibuster badly needed stimulus and infrastructure bills -
that could eat into their vacation plans.

Instead, Dems - who hold a majority, no matter how slim - treat
filibuster threats, made to the press, as being the same as actual
filibusters, turning the Senate into a kind of mannered kabuki, a
pretense to lawmaking.

Nader has a call to action for the 500-some reporters who cover
Congress: "report these absurdly long AWOLs to the people back home," to
get the public to collar their lawmakers and read them the riot act.

"Go back to work - five, six, or seven days if necessary to do your
duties. Get serious lawmakers! You hold in trust the sovereign power of
the American people. We have given you handsome pay, benefits, perks,
services, staff, and a powerfully air-conditioned Capitol to perform
your constitutional duties with due deliberation. You must not end up in
frantic deadlines legislating with all the sloppy drafting, unintended
consequences, and loopholes for greedy commercial interests."

And here's Nader's call to action for the rest of us:

"Let's get going Americans. Call your Senators and Representatives. The
switchboard number (open 24/7) for Congress is 202-224-3121. The
operators, who have to stay on the job, will steer you to your named
Senators and Representatives. Tell your members of Congress to camp out
on Capitol Hill. Tell them to earn their pay and respect the power given
to them by the people."

This day in history (permalink)

#15yrsago Jim Baen, sf publisher, has passed away

#10yrsago YouTube listens to fraudulent NyanCat takedown notice, drags
heels on put-back from creator

#10yrsago Wyoming’s corporation mills manufacture privileged artificial
“people” to order

#5yrsago Hope Larson’s “Compass South”: swashbuckling YA graphic novel

#5yrsago Fansmitter: malware that exfiltrates data from airgapped
computers by varying the sound of their fans

#5yrsago Healthcare workers prioritize helping people over information
security (disaster ensues)

#5yrsago The Olympics are profitable for every host city (that lies
about the numbers)

#5yrsago Gun-waving cop who attacked black teenaged girl in her bathing
suit faces no charges

#5yrsago Always-on CCTVs with no effective security harnessed into
massive, unstoppable botnet

#5yrsago Mississippi state rep tells distraught mom to buy kid’s
lifesaving meds ‘with money she earns’

Colophon (permalink)

Today's top sources: Naked Capitalism
(https://www.nakedcapitalism.com/), Bruce Schneier

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:

* Launch for Neil Sharpson's When the Sparrow Falls (Mysterious Galaxy),
Jul 10, https://www.mystgalaxy.com/sharpson71021

Upcoming appearances:

* Launch for Neil Sharpson's When the Sparrow Falls (Mysterious Galaxy),
Jul 10, https://www.mystgalaxy.com/sharpson71021

Recent appearances:

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Upcoming books:

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Beacon Press 2022

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