[Plura-list] Dead, broke

Cory Doctorow doctorow at craphound.com
Wed May 19 12:18:16 EDT 2021


Today (5/19), I'm doing a talk called "Seize the Means of Computation,"
at the Ryerson Centre for Free Expression:


And tomorrow (5/20), I'm doing a keynote called "Privacy Without
Monopoly," for the Northsec conference:



Today's links

* Dead, broke: What it's like to inherit nothing but debt.

* This day in history: 2006, 2011, 2016, 2020

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


🎽 Dead, broke

Of all the moving, wrenching accounts of death during the pandemic,
Molly McGhee's "America's Dead Souls," for The Paris Review stands out:
haunting, furious and sad, an rude awakening of the status quo that
denies any possibility of inaction.


I've known McGhee a long time, since she worked on my book INFORMATION
DOESN'T WANT TO BE FREE from McSweeneys, a professional association we
renewed when she landed at Tor.

During the pandemic crisis, I've had two different connections to her:
on the one hand, the consummate  professionalism of her emails as we
published my novel ATTACK SURFACE in the middle of the lockdown.

On the other hand, I knew her through her wrenching and deeply personal
Twitter account of the personal tragedies she's endured over the same
period. Her Paris Review essay brings those tragedies into sharp focus
and uses them to pin a huge and heretofore ill-defined feeling.

McGhee's mother died during the crisis, but the death was the
culmination of years of hardship: "[earning] less than $10,000 a year.
Suffering from debilitating depression while caring for her aging
parents...chronically unemployed, undermedicated, and overstressed."

Her mother's debts were on public display through searchable databases,
and her life was haunted by both con artists and bill collectors who
carpet-bombed her with calls, letters and emails.

She was too poor to fight back: her wages were garnished by the IRS "for
back taxes calculated from a years-old misfiling they refused to
correct." McGhee sent her months of her salary, but it wasn't enough.

She had no answer for her mother's rhetorical questions, "Why are these
people harassing me? What good does it do them?"

Because the answer is obvious and insufficient: "The people in power
don’t care if we live or die, as long as they get paid."

It only took two days after McGhee's mother died for her creditors to
begin harassing her for her mother's debts. The state of Tennessee
seized the house, but Wells Fargo expected her to make good on the mortgage.

The hospital where McGhee's mother died wanted a quarter of a million
dollars. McGhee, not even 26, was staring down the barrel of the weapon
that had been trained on her mother, the inheritor of nothing but debt.

The debt-machine is efficient. Bill collectors found out about McGhee's
mother's death before McGhee's own family got word. And they're
remorseless, immune to McGhee's "pleading, bargaining, reasoning,
denying, uploading, scanning, begging, faxing, and crying."

McGhee compares it to Gogol's "Dead Souls," a surreal tale of a grifter
named Chichikov who buys dead serfs' souls to sell for profit.

It's only surreal if you've never been in the debt system's crosshairs,
"where one day of lost wages can compound into houselessness."

We live in a system of winners and losers. The winners' winnings come
from debt, shielded from the system's cruelty by "professionalism and
bureaucracy" that insulate them - and their functionaries - from
"feelings of culpability, not to mention empathy or curiosity."

Poor people have less money, but the system is firmly focused poor
people, because people with money can defend themselves. When McGhee
went into debt to hire a lawyer, a single letter on official letterhead
instantly reduced all that debt by 90% - more than $250k, poof.

It's expensive to be poor. Take Community Health Systems, one of the
largest hospital chains in America. It sues the *shit* out of poor
people. When those people can afford lawyers, CHS loses, because it is
chasing debts it is not entitled to collect.


CHS itself owes $7.6 billion. It turned its first profit in 2020, thanks
to hundreds of millions of dollars in state and federal subsidies, and
its executives pocketed millions in "performance bonuses" for a
performance that consisted of getting bailed out by the public.

The Trump stimulus handed trillions to the richest people and biggest
companies in America. Those companies "leveraged up" their handouts to
raise trillions more and went on spending sprees, buying up struggling


They loaded these companies up with debt, declared "divi recaps" (where
you take out a loan on a company you bought on credit and put that money
in your own pocket as a "special dividend") and crashed the companies,
destroying jobs and communities.

Plutes know there are three kinds of debt: workers' debts (which must be
repaid), owners' debts (to be "restructured" away) and government debt
(not debt at all, but still handy for terrifying normies with stories of
"mortgaging our kids' futures").


Forty years of this approach has turned the economy into a shambling
zombie, dependent on the fiction that "consumer" debts - repackaged as
bonds through financialization - will be repaid, somehow.


As an ever-larger share of the world's wealth has shifted from the
workers' side of the balance sheet to the owners', the ability of
workers to buy things to keep businesses afloat as vehicles for
debt-leveraging has only declined.

Wage-theft and stagnation, unions in retreat, monopoly, monopsony,
tax-preferencing for home-owners over renters, for capital gains over
wages, spiraling housing, health and education costs, worker
misclassification - wages are annihilated before they're even deposited.

With no wages left over to fund consumption, there's only debt, and as
Michael Hudson says, "Debts that can't be repaid, won't be repaid." CHS
can comfortably carry billions in debts, but the sick people it sues for
$201 have to choose between rent and medical debt.

Every loan-shark knows how this works. The chump with $500 who owes you
$500 and owes the bank $500 needs an incentive to pay you ahead of the
bank. To assert the primacy of your claims, you need an arm-breaker.

The digital world has given us all kinds of fantastic new arm-breakers:
digital repo men who can brick your car or your phone. It's automated
the once rare practice of evictions, creating eviction mills that run
with devastating efficiency.


Creating a debt-instrument - a bond grounded in the payments from other
peoples' debts - requires that you convince investors and bond-rating
agencies that your arm-breaker will terrorize the debtors into paying
you instead of child-support or grocery bills.

"The cruelty is the point" isn't ideology, it's pure description. The
system - an artificial life-form constituted as immortal colony organism
that uses us as gut flora - runs on competing claims to your debt, and
victory consists of terrorizing you more than any rival.

The financiers who practice leveraged buyouts destroy real businesses,
ruin lives and hollow out communities. They are feted as "job creators."
The workers who must borrow to close the gap they leave are "deadbeats."
Leveraged buyouts are back, baby.


If you fret that forgiving student loans and making college free will
"saddle our kids with debt," then you've been suckered.

Look. Replacing a system that starts all but the richest children with
unserviceable debt with one that doesn't is liberation, not bondage.

Since Reagan, we've been hiking tuition, killing deductions for
interest, and shielding student debt from bankruptcy.That's how you can
borrow $79k, pay $190k, still owe $236k, and have 25% taken from every
paycheck *and* Social Security until you die.


Debts that can't be paid, won't be paid. Student debts *do* get
forgiven, but only for those highly educated, (potentially) highly
productive people who can prove that they have been so thoroughly
destroyed by debt that they have no future.


And as McGhee reminds us, the tragedy isn't merely that we educate
people on the pretense of betting on America's future, but really, the
principle use that the system makes of the educated is as collateral for
securitized loans.

If the arm-breakers who chased her mother wanted to understand that
woman's humanity, McGhee says they should start here:

"Her humor and her rage were unmatched. In the evenings, against the
setting Tennessee sun, she liked to drink red can Cokes in the garden
while snuffing cigarettes out against the yard’s ant colonies. She could
reckon with anyone just by looking them in the eye. Men were terrified
of her, rightfully so. She was sweet. In the last week of her life, when
she couldn’t understand where she was or who she was talking to, she
greeted everyone the same: 'Hi, pal. Hope you’re doing okay. When can
you come pick me up?'"

Take a second. Re-read that.


🎽 This day in history

#15yrsago Is one month’s piracy worth more than France’s GDP?

#10yrsago CDC explains how to prepare for a zombie apocalypse

#5yrsago A look at digital habits of 13 year olds shows desire for
privacy, face-to-face time

#5yrsago Second Life’s Trump army lays siege to Bernie Sanders’s virtual
HQ with swastika cannons

#5yrsago Angry dudes are downranking woman-oriented TV shows on review

#5yrsago Apple rejects game about Palestine because political messages
disqualify games from consideration

#1yrago Softbank's "pegasus" grift

#1yrago "Shoe-leather" contact tracing works


🎽 Colophon

Today's top sources: Patrick Nielsen Hayden (https://twitter.com/pnh/).

Currently writing:

* Spill, a Little Brother short story about pipeline protests.
Yesterday's progress: 310 words (1062 words total).

* A short story about consumer data co-ops.  PLANNING

* 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: How To Destroy Surveillance Capitalism (Part 06)

Upcoming appearances:

* Seize the Means of Computation, Ryerson Centre for Free Expression,
May 19,

* Privacy Without Monopoly, Northsec, May 20,

* In conversation with David Dayen (Second Life Book Club), Jun 4,

* Book launch for Terry Miles's Rabbits (Book Soup), Jun 7,

Recent appearances:

* Interoperability and Alternative Social Media

* Mohanraj and Rosenbaum Are Humans

* Can Antitrust Laws Destroy Surveillance Capitalism? (Majority Report)

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

This work licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 license.
That means you can use it any way you like, including commercially,
provided that you attribute it to me, Cory Doctorow, and include a link
to pluralistic.net.


Quotations and images are not included in this license; they are
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basis of a separate license. Please exercise caution.


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

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