On Bigging, and Failing

Everyone loves an end-of-year top ten list, and we can pick from this Biggest Tech Lies of 2018 almost at random:

5. If we’re bigger, it will create more competition. – Everyone who runs a pseudo-monopoly

The most devastating merger of the year was AT&T and Time-Warner’s unholy union into a media machine with a telecom background operating under an FCC with seemingly no interest in policing anti-competitive practices. We still don’t know what the worst of the consequences will be, but we’ve already seen it strong-arm rival cable providers into paying more for HBO and the shut down of a beloved streaming service that wasn’t too big to fail. When AT&T argued that it needed to be bigger in order to create more competition, no one thought that would mean it just wants to plan a bunch of streaming services that will compete with each other and line AT&T’s pockets no matter which one you choose.

We can argue the legality of big companies merging with big companies until we’re blue in the face, but bigness is one of the biggest problems in the world today. The bigger companies are, the more power they acquire and the more difficult it becomes to hold them accountable. Current antitrust regulations have proven inadequate, and they are even more useless when the FTC is so bad at enforcing them.

Companies like Facebook and Twitter are too big to enforce their own policies, Amazon is too big for small businesses to compete against, and telecoms are so big they write laws prohibiting your city from building its own network. Venture capitalists now want to feel that your startup can become either accomplish the impossible feat of toppling one of these giants or that you at least have a solid plan to be acquired by one of the big boys. Bigness doesn’t create competition, it pulls everything into a black hole that’s hostile to consumers and citizens around the world.

It’s practically every problem incarnate, joined as one: Giant companies. By existential ethos, they cannot care about workers, conditions or any negative externalities of the doing of their business. Even the construct ‘big problem’ is itself a kind exacerbated by terminology. In this way, the supposed empirical challenges of capitalism should have actually been understood as a roadmap, as they have been by some, no doubt. But these roads are a leading to a fundamental weakness, a dysfunction in the system itself. It could have been that this way of organizing an economy would work if and only if monopolies and all other rule violations were avoided and all participants observed the rules for the health of the system, if not for the board itself. But the entire endeavor has been predicated instead on getting away with as much transgression as possible. “Tie it up in court for years, damn the torpedoes.” There’s some corollary with ‘Ships being safer kept in the harbor,’ but, we’ll work on that.

Image: Battle of Mobile Bay, by Louis Prang

Slowed! to the Highest Bidder

Hilarity ensues as the Trump ministration launches a trial balloon for building a nationwide 5G network:

it was an unpleasant surprise to many when a draft proposal urging heavy federal involvement in the next generation of fast mobile networks emerged from the White House of Donald Trump — who won the presidency after promising massive cuts to regulations.

”We’re not Venezuela,” Representative Greg Walden, an Oregon Republican and the chairman of the House Commerce Committee, said at a policy gathering in Washington. “Government taking it over, controlling it, is probably — clearly — not the way to go.”

Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai, a Republican chosen by Trump, was even more blunt: “I oppose any proposal for the federal government to build and operate a nationwide 5G network”

The proposal is rooted in concerns about China and cybersecurity, according to two administration officials familiar with the plans who were granted anonymity to discuss them. Unresolved questions include the extent of taxpayer funding, and whether a fifth generation, or 5G, network would be owned by the government, one of the officials said.

If the federal government directly participates in building a wireless network intended for commercial use, it would be a departure from the decades-long tradition of auctioning licenses to telecommunications companies to build their own networks. Phone service has been on a deregulatory path for decades, including legislation in 1996 that President Bill Clinton said “promotes competition as the key to opening new markets and new opportunities.”

Very observant of Representative Walden, but so many (and varied) plans are afoot and this is where they play the V card? So frightened are we of the massive, self-created Beowulf of ‘government-run _____’ that we are willing to abide any and all inferior services because THE MARKET! One might say it is cunning to introduce the security threat into this discussion until you remember who’s in charge and that you have every reason to be suspect even of unscheduled emptying of waste baskets. But the rending of garments about how great our competitive monopolies are at doing everything and the temerity to threaten them with a network built and own by Guhvuhmint is indeed tender and endearing.

Further Scrutiny

We have a non-trivial history of building up potential threats, while downplaying others, in the service of multiple agendas that deem to profit, in one sense or another, in remaining hyped, unseen, or partially obscured from view, as the case may be. The entire specter of the Cold War confrontation with the Soviet menace, for example, leavened with a more sensible appraisal of the threat plus the opportunity costs inherent in our responses to it, might have rendered a less-militaristic national posture while at the same time producing basically the same result. That’s painful, in many ways, but nonetheless a product of what we know now. Kubrick tried to burst it open with ridicule near the beginning; but we laughed even as we were having none of it.

To stay with that example, as it is handy, living with this threat of annihilation did wonders for introducing us to a kind of Somatic malaise that would have been otherwise unimaginable. It didn’t make us leaner, stronger and more resilient. The spirited, forty-year advocacy of capitalism as though it was on the verge of being overtaken did make us fatter, more depressed and more willing not only to poison mind, body and soul but also to defend the need to do so in the name of progress and the power of the market. You see where this is going; we need look no further than to the current public advocacy on behalf of private insurance companies to witness the absurd whirlpool of self-perpetuating conviction that urges action where none is necessary and punishes any intention in the face of great urgency. Kubrick would have had a field day.

But this brings into question: what are actual existential threats? Little seen, hardly heard. Have we so discredited the notion that such things exist so as to permanently disarm the concept of its primary potency? Measures to address climate change slip back over the horizon until we can afford them. What a mindless pity. But if it is one born of a particular kind of savv, a mere advocacy on behalf of interests and as such imminently shiftable and correctable, can’t we just brand ourselves into a transition?

A Fool and His Primer

So… mrs. green and I speak often about how newspapers will be able to support themselves going forward, now that their revenue model has gone up in Craig’s List smoke. The supposition is that at some point, through collusion or other such cartel-like agreement, the larger and dependable online sources of actual reporting will have to start charging for content. This allows that some of them will be able to charge for content, with the inferred assumption that this is true as long as they don’t destroy their brand.

THERE’S NO SUCH THING AS A ‘LIGHT-SWITCH TAX’…. In an apparent effort to be an even more shameless hack, Sen. Judd Gregg (R-N.H.) argues in a Washington Post op-ed today that “all American families will get stuck with a new ‘light-switch tax’ on electricity bills that is in the president’s budget.”

It’s not just Gregg. While President Obama cut taxes for the vast majority of Americans, a standard Republican talking point is that Obama is also raising taxes on everyone who uses electricity. The new GOP catch phrase popped up about a week ago, when the House Republican Conference said in a press release that the administration supports “a light switch tax that would cost every American household $3,128 a year.”

As is too often the case, the difference between Republican rhetoric and reality is overwhelming.

The extent to which established and dependable media sources commit to undermining their brand will have as much effect on their long-term viability as the bad decision-making of the corporate owners.

Also note the tendentious application of tax rhetoric to what is, sad to say, only an imagined attempt to create incentives to influence energy demand. It’s like the ‘death tax’ BS. Republicans can and do choose to see everything through the prism of taxes, but this childlike construct requires a grand gesture at the outset – primarily setting up the government as some separate, antagonistic entity, out to get you and your hard-earned winnings.

In the interest of brevity, a foolish and naive primer: We support the country, literally, by funding the government. It’s patriotic, sure, but also practical. We use it for all kinds of things we can and do disagree about – fighting wars, picking up the trash, putting out fires, educating our youngsters. Yet, through the magic of funding activities like these, we discover the handy ability to encourage or discourage behaviors by charging ourselves more or less for doing or not doing certain things – from littering to using lead paint, for example, but also having children, buying a home.

So despite this ‘light-switch tax’ scare-mongering, and it will get worse, taxing carbon emissions will be the route away from carbon-centric energy sources and toward affordable renewable energy. Whatever the costs, we will create a funding regimen that ultimately rewards sustainability. That’s not optimism – it’s what the system is supposed to do. The country is us – we fund the government.

better should

This Blackwater re-branding story reminds me of something that should be rolling around in the back of this blog practically all the time. Just because we might grow used to green-ry doesn’t mean it’s not still happening, moving, changing forms and back again. What is it the kids say – IM N UR INTERTUBZ?

Green washing, lest we forget, is all about branding, which is itself simply a way to identify a product with an idea that triggers ‘the buy’ impulse in consumers. The trigger could be vague and smoky, like sexual allure, or it could be the promotion of a specific sort of loyalty. Either way, the ends are largely the same.

On risk of repetition but begging your forgiveness, Green washing is the branding of a product with sustainability… ecological rigamarole… renewable-ishyness – you see, what cames after the first words, like the singing trees and chirping birds, doesn’t really matter. Though it matters that it doesn’t really matter, if you follow me.

Most people don’t want to go any farther than that, and advertisers know that most people – while they’re sympathetic to the idea of a sustainable world, powered by clean renewables (whatever that means) – don’t want to go any deeper than that. Too many questions arise too quickly about the entire house of cards. We’re the perfect targets for marketing based on self-preservation, basically because we’re afraid to look under our own skirts for what we might see.

Fear not. Go ahead and think of the worst thing you can think of; I’ll wait.

P.S. Dammit! I can’t help thinking that this digression has something to do with the talk by J.P. Witkin that I went to a couple days ago. Hate it when mediums I don’t like work on me anyway.