Ruffling the kleptocracy

In other news – just started a subscription to the FT and wow, there ARE other stories out there. Boring, significant. Anyway, the U.S. is about to ban anonymous shell companies:

The Biden administration’s focus on corruption and money laundering may so far have attracted less notice than its other big policy decisions. But it is the most meaningful manifestation of the US president’s argument that making the economy work for ordinary Americans is intimately connected to US national security and foreign policy interests.

There are many reasons to cheer this turn in policy. First, it is an all-too-rare example of relative bipartisanship in a deeply polarised country. Days before the January 6 attack on the Capitol, the Corporate Transparency Act was passed by overwhelming majorities of the US Congress as part of the annual defence spending authorisation bill. This law will, when implemented, in effect ban anonymous shell companies in the US — a favoured conduit for the world’s corrupt to launder dirty money, as Yellen referred to in her remarks.

Second, the administration means it seriously. The Treasury has issued an implementation rule for the shell company ban. Too often, in the US or elsewhere, good laws on paper have been dead letters in practice, because of loopholes or a failure to put enough resources and political support behind enforcement. This time looks different.

So weird, and not to get/stay meta all the time, but this story even hits the mythical ‘bipartisan’ note somehow, and yet still never rises to the level of the local news. Sure, it was drowned out by a coup attempt, but as the article points out, corrupted government institutions are the very things that abet anti-democratic movements. So, striking back at corruption also strikes a blow in support of liberal democracy. Sounds so quaint, but that’s where we are.

Image: Nicobar spindle shell, typically not itself a threat to democracy.

Trivialized media

Compter-sur-les-mains-en-ChineIranian blogger Hossein Derakhshan was sent to prison in 2008 for what he had written and advocated for online. When he was released in 2014, the internet had greatly changed:

There’s a story in the Qur’an that I thought about a lot during my first eight months in solitary confinement. In it, a group of persecuted Christians find refuge in a cave. They, and a dog they have with them, fall into a deep sleep and wake up under the impression that they have taken a nap: in fact, it’s 300 years later. One version of the story tells of how one of them goes out to buy food – and I can only imagine how hungry they must have been after 300 years – and discovers that his money is obsolete now, a museum item. That’s when he realises how long they have been absent.

The hyperlink was my currency six years ago. It represented the open, interconnected spirit of the world wide web – a vision that started with its inventor, Tim Berners-Lee. The hyperlink was a way to abandon centralisation – all the links, lines and hierarchies – and replace them with something more distributed, a system of nodes and networks. Since I got out of jail, though, I’ve realised how much the hyperlink has been devalued, almost made obsolete.

The piece is full of pull quotes, so read the whole thing. How little we notice just how much social media sites and our use of them has changed is a tribute to the ingenuity of engineers in Silicon Valley. They think about this stuff all the time, so we don’t have to! But the punchline is… we do have to. Derakshan’s perspective is a stark reminder of just how limited the use of social media has made our world – all beneath the aegis of connecting, sharing and informing. Frogs eventually do notice the water boiling. It’s crucial to set the irony aside, and reset the way online convenience has conditioned us already.

There’s a resolution. Happy 2016.

Image: Count on your hands in Chinese

News Profit

papersI guess that could be prophet, but that’s a bit cheeky and I already miss the Amatriciana.

The impetus of media properties to destroy their product marches on. Bottom-line news gathering, a strict misnomer, has become the new if nonsensical metric. Where can this be headed, other than the obvious? The Washington Monthly looks at the future of cross-subsidies:

In the past, when media companies funded labor-intensive journalism—foreign coverage, investigative projects, beat reporters who spend days tracking down leads—we believed this reportage was very valuable, even financially. Readers wanted to know, advertisers liked the prestige that high-quality reporting brought, and the publications made plenty of money.

Occasionally a wiseass would say something like, “The box scores are paying for the Baghdad bureau,” and we thought, Well, maybe that cross-subsidy exists, maybe it doesn’t—but the whole package seems to be doing just fine.

The Internet blew apart the package and eliminated the cross-subsidy. Now readers can go to ESPN and get box scores, and they can go to a separate site to get news. Sports scores no longer subsidize the foreign correspondent, and the comics no longer support the city hall reporter.

This has led us to confront the ugly reality of just how lousy—financially speaking—many of our journalistic projects were. Media managers can now produce a profit-and-loss statement not only for the news division as a whole, but for each reporter—and each piece of content.

That is a dangerous sort of urgency. Immediate returns on investment is just instant gratification by [barely] another name. It’s not a viable practice for anything.

More broadly, news can be boring. What we are convincing ourselves to be true is merely self-fulfilling, and an indication that any number of things could be. But once information and news reporting become just more ‘content’ that has to compete for eyeballs, then we really need to keep one eye on the till. But beyond certain levels of comfort, even paranoia is not a sufficient motivating force. The challenge to education is ignorance; the need to know, in order to inform our assent or rejection, only grows with the complexity shrouded in simple choices. Re-discovering self-interest can be brutal and unforgiving, but it’s the only thing that will liberate the buyer’s impulse.


Lying to get to the Truth

It’s something we are not nearly smart enough to do, but some do believe they are sufficiently clever.

So apparently Greenpeace devised a fake website, twitter stream, video and accompanying ad campaign to bring to light everything Shell isn’t yet doing (but is prepared to do) in the Arctic. There are several problems with this, laid out here:

The first one is that I don’t think portraying Shell as inept is a very wise choice. If they wanted to influence public opinion, I suspect they’d pay decent money and get someone who knows what they’re doing to manage a new ad campaign and run a Twitter account. If they’re not doing that, it’s because the general public is not currently the target audience for their PR budget. But when we are, trust me: it will be a competent effort. If we’re only braced for buffoons and clowns, they’ll succeed at whatever spin they’re trying to convey.

The second, larger problem, is that Greenpeace lied to us. This wasn’t a nod-and-a-wink parody; this was a dedicated effort to deceive. They played the public for patsies and herded them like sheep. That kind of contempt for the people whose support (financial and otherwise) they need is inexcusable. For me, it puts them in a box with people like Bush and Blair, who were also flexible with the truth for the greater good.

Yes, people are very amused by the Yes Men. But adding to the general inventory of cynicism with your own disinformation campaign only lowers the value of accurate information that much further, which makes the work of Shell et al all the easier.

The boring and uncomfortable reality is that we have to be more truthful than ever about the effects of climate change and stop trying to filter it through ideas gauged to simultaneously make us feel better. Fossil fuel extraction companies are apathetic enough as it is – and attempting to shame or embarrass them through elaborate ruses only discredits the opposition and muddies the rising tides. They have no shame and cannot be embarrassed, only impacted by lower profit margins.

People already don’t know what to think because of the years of sophisticated, high gloss disinformation propelled at blinding speeds. Allowing any more vestiges of credibility to slip away intentionally is stupid and unforgivable.

And fortunately for the fossil fuel industry, sincerity already has the least currency imaginable. Think of everything it takes to keep this system in place. If you consider how difficult it would be to get millions of people to buy monster trucks that get <10 mpg and commute 50 miles to work each way each day, we’re talking at least a concerted effort, if not the addition of some magic potion. Don’t make it easier to go down.

The Worst Circus

What does Glenn Greenwald mean?

But the Report also cites the “fall of the Dutch Government over its troop commitment to Afghanistan” and worries that — particularly if the “bloody summer in Afghanistan” that many predict takes place — what happened to the Dutch will spread as a result of the “fragility of European support” for the war.  As the truly creepy Report title puts it, the CIA’s concern is:  “Why Counting on Apathy May Not Be Enough”

It’s both interesting and revealing that the CIA sees Obama as a valuable asset in putting a pretty face on our wars in the eyes of foreign populations. It is odious — though, of course, completely unsurprising — that the CIA plots ways to manipulate public opinion in foreign countries in order to sustain support for our wars.  Now that this is a Democratic administration doing this and a Democratic war at issue, I doubt many people will object to any of this.  But what is worth noting is how and why this classified Report was made publicly available:  because it was leaked to and then posted by, the site run by the non-profit group Sunshine Press, that is devoted to exposing suppressed government and corporate corruption by publicizing many of their most closely guarded secrets.

If you haven’t seen the video released through Wikileaks earlier this week, good for you – it’s wrenching. But you are going to see it. GG‘s point about how information is controlled in a democracy is one everyone should step back and consider, even and especially as we get caught up in periodic convulsions about the biases of this or that news network. The whole thing is corrupted and as undeserving of your attentions as the idea that you need to calibrate your opinions to the whims of some mythical American center, politically speaking. And you cannot convince me that our extraordinary fascination with video slaughter games had nothing to do with the tone and attitude of the pilots speaking in the video. You really can’t get that callous and unfeeling about where bullets go and what they do without hundreds of hours of practice.

Cognitive Dissidents

Foreign fighters among the Taliban with Birmingham (U.K.) accents? NASA planning massive space explosions in search of water on the moon? Unrelated incidents to be sure, but what, exactly, is going on?

These sort of bizarre happenings in parallel occur all the time, of course, and they have become a part of living in our present day – as curious as horseless carriages must have once seemed. Unpacking them at all, they may become even more Byzantine as curiosities. The Aston Villa tattoos on the recently-killed Taliban fighter are as crazy/easy to explain as would have been the case had their accents been from Birmingham, Alabama. Okay, maybe not. That would have been crazy. But no more so than scientists preparing to fly a rocket booster into the moon in order to trigger a six-mile-high explosion.

The four-month mission of the Lunar Crater Observation and Sensing Satellite (LCROSS), which will be directed from NASA’s Ames Research Center at Moffett Field, is to discover whether water is frozen in the perpetual darkness of craters near the moon’s south pole. As a potential source of oxygen for life support and hydrogen for rocket fuel, that water would be a tremendous boost to NASA’s plans to restart human exploration of the moon.

It is in this climate, where we have become nearly unable to differentiate the fabulous from the actual, where the words ‘incredible’ and ‘amazing’ have been displaced of their original meanings, where extraordinary measures of all sorts limbo beneath the radar, causing not the slightest flinch. Maybe it’s always been like this; or perhaps the volume of information bombardment itself is causing the greatest psychological displacement, such that we begin to allow for the unallowable. How else to explain this:

Using iron “seeding” to set off massive plankton growth in the ocean to slow climate change; creating artificial volcanic eruptions to release cooling sulfur into the atmosphere; increasing the solar reflectivity of clouds by adding sea-salt particles; building a giant space mirror to stop ice from melting in Greenland. These may sound like concepts straight out of a George Lucas film, but they are real ideas being proposed by scientists as part of the “geoengineering” movement — a school of thought based upon the idea that humans can engineer ourselves out of global warming on a massive scale.

How many people listened to this report on NPR driving home on Tuesday, looked around at the traffic and nodded their heads? Did they say to themselves, ‘that sounds like a good idea,’ or “I’m glad people are thinking about this’? Even the report hedged itself with a kind of reality check.

And experiments could create disasters. Alan Robock of Rutgers University cataloged a long list of risks. Particles in the stratosphere that block sunlight could also damage the ozone layer, which protects us from harsh ultraviolet light. Or altering the stratosphere could reduce precipitation in Asia, where it waters the crops that feed 2 billion people.

Should we be outraged* by these kinds of suggestions? We seem to be caught in an information spiral, where we’ve down-graded the importance of expertise in favor of a balance between opposing viewpoints. We lend credence to both and preserve the power to play Solomon, though we are greatly ill-educated and prone to believing in both our better impulses and the existence of an easy way out. Sitting in that car in traffic, we may need to first begin to agitate among ourselves, to regain control of what’s happening inside the car, first. Why shouldn’t we be able to counter the effects of climate change without driving less, wasting less, living differently? Do we even know?

* this can be a rather complex proposition in itself, e.g., toward what would the outrage be directed?