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And So Net Neutrality Ends in the US

2017 December 14
by Ian Welsh

Not unexpected. This will make direct competition with entrenched players nearly impossible, as they will be able to buy access to customers, and upstarts won’t. The Internet as a place where anybody could start a new business will constrict.

Oligopoly and monopoly providers (and many areas effectively have only one ISP) will extract even higher profits (understand that high speed internet profits are about 100 percent already) and will either hold anyone who wants to get to customers hostage for access or will force retail customers to pay premium rates for relatively unfettered access.

The fight will continue in court, and can always be overturned by elected officials.

Public internet, by a heavily regulated utility provider, is one solution down the road. The other to do what was done in the days of dial up and force providers to let other companies sell access to the internet through their networks.

To a remarkable degree, the internet is a natural oligopoly. It doesn’t make sense to drive multiple wires or set up multiple sets of towers–that’s irrational. As such, it needs to be regulated as a natural monopoly, with forced upgrades, set levels of profits (a low, single-digit number, inflation-adjusted) and regulatory knee-breakers who are not allowed to work for industries they ever regulated. (Meaning, you can go from industry to regulation, but not vice versa.)

These are, as usual, mostly solved problems. The world has had public or regulated utilities for ages and we know how to make them work if we want to.

Right now we don’t. We want private actors to make unregulated monopoly profits and to shut down innovation and the creation of new work and jobs.

So be it.

(See also, How Internet Monopolies Are Destroying the Web.)


The results of the work I do, like this article, are free, but food isn’t, so if you value my work, please DONATE or SUBSCRIBE.

US Electoral Predictions for 2018 and Beyond

2017 December 13
by Ian Welsh

Back in 2009/10 I said that Obama would be replaced by a right-wing populist. I thought it would take four years, but it took eight, because the losses were concentrated down-ballot, and Obama hung on.

Similar to Matt Stoller, I have a fairly simple heuristic: People expect government to noticeably make their lives better, and when it doesn’t, they toss the bums out.

So, Bush Jr. was a disaster, and in ’06 a wave election put Pelosi in charge of the House. She did nothing with it: She didn’t oppose Bush in any meaningful way. In ’08, in the midst of the financial collapse, Obama got in, and, yeah, he didn’t help Americans for squat, instead concentrating his efforts on immunizing executives from fraud charges and helping banks defraud home-owners (see Chain of Title, by David Dayen if you think this is in any way an exaggeration).

So after his eight years, voters switched parties again. Yeah, it was close, yada yada, but as the field stood, Trump won, despite having the highest negatives of any Presidential candidate in history.

No, Trump didn’t win with racism alone; the margin of victory was given by people who had been willing to vote for Obama. Those people might be racists, but they were willing to put that aside if they believed in a candidate.

Trump had a very populist economic plan in many ways, and has implemented virtually none of it beyond some minor moves on the trade front.

And so the pendulum swings back, and in ’18 the Democrats will take the House and possibly the Senate. Will they do anything with it that really matters to help ordinary Americans in ways that are really noticed? If Trump loses in 2020 (or Pence), will the next Dem President do what matters?

The first party to do what matters will be in a position to sew up the country for 40 years, as FDR did after ’32 and Reagan after ’80.

And, as I have pointed out frequently, and Matt points out today, we dodged a bullet with Trump because he is incompetent. A competent right-wing ideologue who actually made the economy better (and it can be done), can change the US and own it–in a perverse reversal of FDR.

It is not enough to be for civility and decorum. Democrats must also truly be against Republican policies and for positive policies of their own which are radical enough to turn the United States away from its current economic trajectory towards further and further oligarchy. Policies which create and spread wealth, and which end monopolies and oligopolies, and break corruption.

These policies are well known and understood: high marginal tax rates, breaking up large companies and real universal health care, along with effective stimulus and investment. What is lacking isn’t knowledge of how to implement them, what is lacking is will: The Democrats don’t want such policies any more than Republicans do. What they want is kinder, gentler neoliberalism. A slow descent into oligarchy, with a few more cushions for the homeless.


The results of the work I do, like this article, are free, but food isn’t, so if you value my work, please DONATE or SUBSCRIBE.

The Younger You Are the More Your Vote Should Count

2017 December 10
by Ian Welsh

In most countries the young vote less than the old (though if someone champions them, as Corbyn did, their voting rates soar).

But the young are the very people with the most stake in how society is run. If you’ve got 60 years ahead of you, well, it matters that society is well run for those sixty years. If you’ve got ten, burn the house down to keep it warm.

This is related to the death bet:

The death bet is a bet that the cost of something will come after you die, while the benefits will occur while you are alive.

The classic death bet is climate change. If you’re old, well, most of the costs won’t hit while you’re still alive, but the costs of making change now would hit you now, so forget climate change.

A related bet was (and is, in many places) the long bull market in houses; housing prices rising faster than wages. This is obviously unsustainable, young people needing to take on more debt or being straight up unable to buy houses is obviously bad, but if you get in on the housing price rises, well, it’s all gravy for you.

So, the housing boom (and the stock market boom) are artifacts of the 80s. That’s when they take off in a sustained fashion. If you are GI Generation, Silent, or a Boomer this looks like a win to you. You get the property house rises, you sell for a lot more than you bought for, then you go to the South so that brown people can wipe your bum during your retirement.

There will be a cost in the future, but not for you. You win the death bet.

Worked for the GI Generation, worked for the Silents, and has worked for the first half of the Boom and some Xers.

A disaster for the Millennials, a lot of Xers and the next generation (whatever they’ll be called).

Death bet. I get the benefits and die before the costs come due. It’s the social equivalent of getting cancer, being told you’ll be dead for sure in two years, borrowing every cent you can and going wild.

So. Young people live with the consequences of decisions a lot longer than old people. They have a longer horizon. And they are hit by the leading edge of change from which old people are often insulated. If you bought your house when prices were low, high housing prices are almost entirely a good thing for you. If you were there for stock boom and had money to invest, all good. If you got the tax cuts of the neoliberal era, you got to spend that, and because the infrastructure was built with a time horizon of decades, most of it isn’t going to fall down on you.

Oh, old people can be wiser. They have seen more, and can have perspective. But they’ve learned the lessons of the past and what worked then, not what works now.

And the idea that they’ll do what is right because they care about their kids has been proven wrong over the last 40 years. Silents, GIs, and Boomers all knew about climate change (I’m old, I know it was widely known) and did nothing. They knew about housing prices, and that it would hurt their kids, and did nothing, except, sometimes, try and protect their kids at the cost of everyone else’s kids (I’m rich, I can buy my kid a house, who gives a fuck about anyone else).

Inter-generational altruism turns out to be pretty weak, especially once the kids leave. It was stronger in the past because the kids lived near or with the parents, worked in the same businesses, knew the same people, or plowed the same land or land close by.

Parents’ self interest required the kids do well at one time, but it mostly doesn’t now, and it turns out parents aren’t that altruistic.

Neither are kids, as best I can tell.

About 12 years ago my mother had cancer. She was due to die, so I flew out and sat with her for the last two weeks of her life, for which she was entirely bedridden, and she couldn’t talk for most of it.

My mother lived in British Columbia and they had a program where they’d put a caregiver in the house of terminally ill patients. So while I was there there was also a caregiver (mostly two, very kind young women). A nurse also visited twice.

The stories they told. According to them, I was very rare. Almost no one spent the last days with their parents. What they were used to was, instead, the kids coming in and taking the parents’ possessions before the parents were even dead.

Now I don’t claim to be a great son, I could have done more and didn’t, and I sure wasn’t the greatest to my Dad (because I didn’t like him). I would say I did the minimum.

The minimum is now unusual. Most kids are worse.

We mythologize families, but a lot, perhaps most parents, don’t actually do what is right for the adult kids, and their adult kids sure as hell don’t do what is right for their parents. (Yes, you are an exception. I was half an exception. But the palliative nurses saw many many families.)

We’ve created a society where incentives don’t line up to protect the future in a thousand ways (quarterly earnings calls, cashing out stocks, etc…) We’ve destroyed the fabric of extended intergenerational families, and we’re destroying what remains of the social safety net, while gutting basic research (the seed corn of technological progress).

Nor do we have much social feeling. We might, sometimes, take care of our own kids, but the kids of people we don’t know? Fuck’em.

So, perhaps one thing we can do is simply note that people who have to live with the consequences of decisions longer should have more say in the decisions. Start with a vote worth 1 at age 18, and discount it with generic actuarial tables going forward. How much longer does an average person at that age still have to live? What percentage is that compared to what an 18 year old has to live. Multiply. That’s your vote.

(Note that I am not young; this is not a suggestion motivated by self-interest.)

In truth, I offer this more as a thought piece than a serious suggestion (though it wouldn’t bother me if implemented, either).

But why not do it? The middle-aged to old have almost all the power in our society anyway. Look at all the old CEOs and senators and so on running around.

Of course, it might mean the end of pensions. But maybe pensions should be replaced by a universal welfare benefit, which everyone gets, anyway. Pensions are a pretty stupid way to do what they do in rich societies which would benefit from less activity, not more. (That’s a whole other article, but…)

So, should young people have more of a vote than old people? Can parents be trusted to vote in a way which protects their own kids futures, let alone the futures of other people’s kids? Are kids selfish bastards too? Is our society a pathological mess?


The results of the work I do, like this article, are free, but food isn’t, so if you value my work, please DONATE or SUBSCRIBE.

On Franken’s Resignation

2017 December 7
by Ian Welsh

Al Franken

So, he’s gone, under rather a lot of pressure. He appears to have done bad things he should not have done, though as such accusations go they do not rise to the level of Moore or Trump or Conyers, let alone Weinstein.

I suppose this is a good thing. He did wrong, he is gone.

I’ll never entirely understand my fellow humans’ ethical and moral priorities though. This is apparently a terrible crime that requires him to bugger off immediately, but voting for the Iraq war or the Patriot Act or many other things that are far worse isn’t.

Yeah, he didn’t sexually molest as part of his job, I guess, and Senators who voted for Iraq voted for far more deaths and rapes in the pursuit of their duties or something.

I just don’t know. Franken did some bad stuff.

I just wish we had more red lines, and they included finding supporting aggressive war like Iraq (or Libya) completely unacceptable.

Perhaps we’ll get from “You shouldn’t kiss women who don’t want to be kissed” to “You shouldn’t vote for aggressive wars that will get far more women raped and killed.”

Perhaps.


The results of the work I do, like this article, are free, but food isn’t, so if you value my work, please DONATE or SUBSCRIBE.

How Internet Monopolies Are Destroying the Web

2017 December 6
by Ian Welsh

The actual enemy of entrenched interests is not the right, or “Russia” (a country with half the GDP of California), it is the left, who are the people who would tax them and break their power.

Thus, it is not surprising that when Google decided to attack “fake news” they hit the left.

The estimated declines in traffic generated by Google searches for news sites are striking:

I have noticed declines in my own search traffic, though I’m a bit player.

The left, in general, favors high tax rates and either very strict regulation of large corporations or breaking them up. Google, certainly, needs to be broken up, at the least back into its constituent parts (i.e., sever the search engine from everything else.)

But Google is a particularly bad actor: For years it has been evident to everyone in the space that they are hoovering up most of ad revenue. In the early 00s, until 2006/7 it was fairly easy for relatively small websites to make money from ads. That went away as Google cornered much of the market and it’s only gotten worse since then.

Google’s relationship to web sites is almost identical to railroads and farmers in the 19th and early 20th century: Without railroad shipping, farmer’s products couldn’t make it to market, so the railroads set rates that maximized their profit, driving many farms into bankruptcy and keeping most in penury. They took virtually all of the profit.

For smaller, and even mediums-sized web sites Google (and Facebook, to a lesser degree) are in the same position. They determine who gets traffic, especially to newer web sites without established audiences. Because without them you get little to nothing, they get the money.

That means, in effect, that Google and Facebook and other similar companies, exist by taking away the value of other people’s labor–value without which they would have no business or profits. The web’s content comes first; Google’s “finding” it comes second.

There is a lot of gloating in the tech world about how good they are with information, but the basic information problem has not been fixed. Finding what you want or need or what would suit you best is really hard when there are so many options, and no one has figured out how to do it.

This is, at least in part, a matter of incentives. It is in Google’s interest to match you to whatever site benefits Google most, not the site that benefits you most. Just as Amazon doesn’t show everyone the cheapest alternatives for their search (if you can pay more, why show you cheap?), Google wants to make money for Google, and serving you is only important to the extent it makes them money.

As Google has gotten older, it feels as if their results have gotten worse, because they are now in a monopoly situation in most Western countries. People use Google to search, there is no major alternative.

Unregulated monopolies are bad. Unregulated, bundled monopolies are worse (as in, Google and Facebook buying up other market dominant firms, like YouTube).

This problem, combined with the FCC getting rid of network neutrality, is going to destroy a ton of livelihoods (no, not such money as I get from donors; I’m grandfathered in). It has already made the net far less interesting. Every year more stuff is on the Web, yeah, but it’s more mainstream commercial stuff. The weird web of the 90s and early 00s withers.

And it withers because it is in the interest of almost every big actor, from Facebook to Google to the major ISPs, that it does so. They don’t all have identical interests, no, but they all want a Web where either everyone pays a toll, or you have to go to them to get a specific type of content.


The results of the work I do, like this article, are free, but food isn’t, so if you value my work, please DONATE or SUBSCRIBE.

What the Republican Tax Bill Portends for the Future

2017 December 2
by Ian Welsh

I haven’t written about this before because I don’t have a great deal to say that hasn’t been said by other people. The bill is an obvious cash grab by various private interests which will cause great hardship.

The idea that it will “pay for itself” is ludicrous, and no one with a shred of intellectual integrity believes it.

It is six trillion in tax cuts, with 4.5 trillion in tax raises, including not taxing private education, but taxing public education.

A lot of Americans will suffer greatly as a result and a smaller number will do very well.

There will be an attempt to gut Medicare and Social Security next year, and it will be argued as necessary on budgetary grounds, after decades of deliberate acts like this tax bill, which hurt the budget. (And is basically bullshit even on budget grounds, but that’s a different article.)

As for the corporate tax cut from 35 percent to 20 percent, well, the 35 percent was paid by very few large companies–if any, but the last thing the US needs is corporate tax cuts: Corporations are sitting on vast quantities of cash, and they are not investing it. They should be taxed punitively on any non-reinvested profits, and that money should be spent by the government, if corporations don’t. This is common sense stuff.

Taxing overseas profits at a lower rate than domestic profits is a special sort of insanity.

None of this is likely to stand.

A lot of people in the US will suffer because of this. Some will die. All of it will most likely be repealed within eight years, because, as with the Tories in Britain completely destroying the economy for ordinary people, this will lead to a huge backlash.

It will stand only if “centrists” succeed in making sure that genuine left-wing principles are locked out of the Democratic party, as Blairites tried to do with Labour, only barely failing.

However, a genuine left-wing candidate on the Democratic ticket, with policies similar to Corbyn’s, will win in a landslide, because the youngs will vote for them in massive majorities (and, as Corbyn showed, the rule “young people don’t vote” isn’t true when someone champions their causes).

By 2024 at the latest, there will be enough of a generational shift, and enough people hurt badly enough and unable to pretend that the status quo ante was every good, that the Left, if not prevented by internal party politics, will win.

And they will win with a fairly radical agenda.

There are alternative scenarios, of course, nothing is 100 percent. But the feared fascism is unlikely to stick in the US, because the youngs aren’t onside with it (unlike the youngs in Eastern Europe). The people who want fascism in the US are mostly old and getting older (and dying).

Every time fascists come out for a march, Antifa outnumber them vastly.

What is more likely, if the possibility of a large shift to the left is stifled, is cyberpunk dystopia (sadly, so far, minus the cyberwear). Surveillance police state, vast slums abandoned by corporations and governments, corporate syndicalist towns and enclaves (already happening, as tech companies start building housing for their employees), and so on.

Those are the two most likely scenarios for the US. Those who think they can go back to the (illusory) Clintonian prosperity are deluded. The present marches into the future, and the neoliberal era is dying. The question is not if it will be replaced, but by what.

Choose your sides.


The results of the work I do, like this article, are free, but food isn’t, so if you value my work, please DONATE or SUBSCRIBE.

Egypt’s a Disaster: A Totally Expected Disaster

2017 December 1
by Ian Welsh

So, there’s a lot  of terrorism in Egypt these days.

Since 2013, terrorism has increasingly disrupted life in Egypt, especially in the Sinai. The Egyptian hinterland has witnessed more than seventeen hundred attacks over the past four years, according to a tally by the Washington-based Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy. The Sinai Province, the local ISIS affiliate, has claimed credit for some eight hundred of them. Lately, the attacks have been creeping closer to Cairo and targeting more civilians.

This is NOT A SURPRISE.

The Muslim Brotherhood won the Egyptian elections fair and square. Then, the military overthrew them in a coup, outlawed them, seized their territory, and locked up or killed a pile of them.

The Muslim Brotherhood, whatever one thinks of their ideology, was basically peaceful: They took care of the poor. They were popular because they cared for people.

At first, the violence hit mostly military and police targets, but as it has been taken over by people far nastier than the Muslim Brotherhood, the violence has hit civilians far more.

This should not be a surprise. If you prove that peaceful elections don’t work and subsequently outlaw the most successful, peaceful Muslim organization, they aren’t going to be replaced by nice people. You’ve just proved that “nice does not work.”

Now you get to deal with the unpleasant people.

And, hey, it turns out the military can’t run the economy well, either. What a surprise.


The results of the work I do, like this article, are free, but food isn’t, so if you value my work, please DONATE or SUBSCRIBE.

What Different Types of Meditation Do

2017 November 30

Some time ago I posted a basic guide on concentration meditation.

There are a lot of different types of meditation, but the two you’re most likely to run into in the West are concentration meditation and insight meditation.

The two types aren’t unrelated. If you do insight meditation properly you will improve your concentration. If you do concentration meditation correctly, you will have insights, mostly to do with how little control you have over what you think of as “your mind.”

If you’re willing to commit enough time, you should do both, and and should also include open awareness meditation at some point.

There are two main goals of these types of meditation. Insight and “yoking.” Yoga, by which I don’t mean the sort of physical exercise which most westerners consider yoga, is first about yoking, second about insight.

Yoking is when all, or almost all parts of your mind (which includes all parts of your body that report in, your “consciousness”) are working together. A yoked mind is clear and stable and capable of doing whatever it wants without distraction.

(I don’t have a yoked mind, but it’s more stable and concentrated than it used to be.)

Yoking is primarily a result of concentration meditation, but it’s aided by having good insights.

Insight meditation is about understanding yourself, and getting your mind/brain/body to accept those insights at a fundamental level. A real insight is more than intellectual, it changes how you experience the world fundamentally. You will feel different after an actual insight (awakening). Often, though not always, this manifests as long held tensions in the body relaxing.

Recently, I had an awakening which released much of the muscles of my lower back, so that it isn’t curved inwards nearly as much. When that persisted over a few days (a.k.a. a few sleeps), I knew it was real.

The more “yoked” your mind is, even before something approaching full yoking, the more likely you are to have insights, because your attention becomes stable. If you are putting your attention on sensations from the body, say, you are more likely to understand those sensations if you can keep your attention on them longer. The same is true if you are examining your thoughts, emotions, internal narrative, or the products of any of your other senses.

The more insight meditation you do, the better your concentration will get, but not as fast as if you were emphasizing concentration.

When I was young, I was a serious runner. In grade 12, I ran about 40 miles a week. I could also do a hundred push ups easily, get up and not be winded, but I was not muscular and could not do many pull-ups or lift heavy weights. The exercise I did made me stronger than doing no exercise, but it wasn’t primarily about strength.

Meditation is, in part, exercise for the mind. Different exercises make the mind better at doing different things, there is overlap, but there is also a trade-off.

Insight meditation heads straight for the goal of much meditation: Rewiring your brain to perceive the world differently. Insights don’t just make you stronger, they make your brain operate differently. Ultimately the goal is to have a brain that operates in ways that a normal brain, without the insights, just can’t, much like an ordinary person can’t waltz without at least some training, or do complicated gymnastics, or walk a tightrope.

Take a third, common form of meditation: loving-kindness. In loving-kindness meditation, you spend your time feeling love. You start with easy to love people, your dog, hopefully your mother, maybe God (if you aren’t scared of God, which most Westerners are), maybe an idol (the Dalai Lama or Gandhi or Nelson Mandela). You move to people you don’t care about, then you move to people you fear or hate.

You do this every day, ideally for hours a day, and you get to the point where you can be feeling love for anyone, all the time, including people who are actively in your face trying to do you harm (nope, I don’t have this; fuck ’em).

This puts you in parasympathetic mode all the time (rest and digest), which is very healthy and good for you. At the top levels, you become one of those people who seem to radiate love all the time. It makes other forms of meditation really easy, because your brain is never scared (you can’t be scared and deeply loving at the same time), and therefore, it shuts up and stops trying to alert you of every possible threat.

The internal martial arts, like Tai-Chi or Bagua, or even Systema, are based on learning some of this: How to punch people with love, how to stay relaxed when a normal person would be freaking out and losing fine motor control (even normal martial artists).

Which is why most people never become good at fighting with internal martial arts: Because they are based on fighting people without much, or ideally any, fear- or anger-based adrenaline response.

So, loving kindness meditation, taken far enough, lets you do something that an untrained mind cannot do. Be loving even to your enemies while they are punching you, or perhaps even if you are punching them. “I don’t punch you because I love you, but I love you while I punch you.”

Many readers will be thinking: “This is bullshit. This is not possible. You are full of it.”

It’s something someone without a lot of training cannot do. Many people cannot even imagine doing it.

So, back to insight meditation. Insight meditation can rewire the brain in a number of ways. The first rewiring I received was “I am not my personality.” Why? Because when my personality changes, as it has through my life, I’m still me. This is easy to understand intellectually, it is hard to believe it in your body and brain.

Insight meditation can also get you to things like “I don’t do anything” which are profoundly alienated from common experience. (See the Bhagavad Gita for the purest expression of this.) I haven’t had this at the full awakening level, but I slip into it at times because I’ve done a lot of meditation around it: I know I don’t “control” my brain or my body or my thoughts. I’ve watched them very closely, I’ve tried to control them, etc.

Other available insights include “Everything passes,” “I am everything,” “I am nothing,” “I am the witness,” “I am not my body,” and some stuff that is even more alienated from common experience like “Suffering is just information I can disregard.”

These awakenings rewire the mind/brain/body. Sometimes only partially, sometimes what seems to be fully, and they are one of the main goals of many serious meditators because you carry these insights with you when you aren’t meditating.

As lovely as yoking is, and as much as the very best meditators can stay there for months, it can be upset. Basic rewiring of the mind/brain from Awakenings, on the other hand, is much more sticky.

And it gives the big rewards, like cessation of suffering, feeling of unity with the world, and so on.

(Some very good meditators are blissed out while meditating and miserable when not meditating. Nice to have, but…)

It should be emphasized that these forms of meditation can work together. The Buddha emphasized three: loving kindness, concentration on the breath, and insight meditation. If you’re loving all the time, it’s easier to concentrate. Easier concentration makes insight easier. Insight gets you the big goals, and hey, yoking is apparently amazing–your body feels good virtually all the time: bliss of body, bliss of mind.

More on all of this at a later date if interest remains high, including basic insight meditation and how to do open-awareness meditation.

(See Also, Some Fruits of Meditation: Simple Happiness.)


The results of the work I do, like this article, are free, but food isn’t, so if you value my work, please DONATE or SUBSCRIBE.