Friday, November 17, 2017

The Demise of Dissent: Why the Web Is Becoming Homogenized

In other words, we'll be left with officially generated and sanctioned fake news and "approved" dissent.
We've all heard that the problem with the web is fake news, i.e. unsubstantiated or erroneous content that's designed to mislead or sow confusion.
The problem isn't just fake news--it's the homogenization of the web, that is, the elimination or marginalization of independent voices of skepticism and dissent.
There are four drivers of this homogenization:
1. The suppression of dissent under the guise of ridding the web of propaganda and fake news--in other words, dissent is labeled fake news as a cover for silencing critics and skeptics.
2. The sharp decline of advertising revenues flowing to web publishers, both major outlets and small independent publishers like Of Two Minds.
3. The majority of advert revenues now flow into the coffers of the quasi-monopolies Facebook and Google.
4. Publishers are increasingly dependent on these quasi-monopolies for readers and visibility: any publisher who runs afoul of Facebook and Google and is sent to Digital Siberia effectively vanishes.
The reason why publishers' advert incomes are plummeting are four-fold:
1. Most of the advert revenues in the digital market are being skimmed by Facebook and Google, as the chart below illustrates.
2. Ad blockers have become ubiquitous.
3. Few people click on the display ads that are the standard in desktop web publishing; in other words, these ads simply don't work very well, and much of the revenue being generated is click-fraud, i.e. bots not real people clicking on adverts because they're interested in the product/service. As a result, advertisers are pulling away from these type of ads as they search for advert models that aren't so vulnerable to click-fraud.
4. The web is increasingly shifting to mobile, which has fewer advert spots due to the small size of the display. In addition, major third-party advert services such as Google Adsense place restrictions on the number and size of ads being displayed on publishers' sites.
The systemic erosion of advert revenues for everyone other than FB and Google is evident everywhere: for example, BuzzFeed Set to Miss Revenue Target, Signaling Turbulence in Media Prospects for a 2018 initial public offering by the high-profile publisher now appear remote.
Digital publisher BuzzFeed is on track to miss its revenue target this year by a significant amount, the latest sign that troubles in the online-ad business are making it tough for new-media upstarts to live up to lofty expectations.
As a result of these two dynamics--the censorship of dissenting views under the excuse of limiting fake news, and the erosion of advert income--independent publishers are losing ground. While those posting on Facebook and other social media sites have little expectation of monetizing their content, many web publishers made enough income off adverts or affiliated income (from YouTube channels, for example) to justify the enormous time and effort they expended keeping their channel/site going.
As advert income has dwindled, there are only two other revenue models available to publishers: a subscription service or Patreon, i.e. the direct financial support of users/readers/viewers. Major publishers are struggling to build a subscription base large enough to fund their operations, a task made more difficult by the expectation that all content is free or should be free.
Patreon has been a boon for thousands of independent writers, journalists, cartoonists, filmmakers and other creators of content. The Patreon model (as I understand it, and yes I have a Patreon campaign) is not based on content that's behind a paywall available to subscribers only, but on providing incentives in the form of content or other rewards to those who choose to contribute.
The Patreon model only works if enough users/readers/viewers step up to support content creators they value. I think the success of Patreon suggests that many people are willing to support the content creators they value. But like all voluntary revenue models, there's the free-rider issue: people who may have the income to pay a bit for content choose not to, and in essence free-ride on those few who do contribute/pay for content.
Some people have advanced the model of micropayments as the solution to the problem of compensating content creators fairly. While this model has some obvious benefits--pennies charged for access to content might add up to a living for content creators if their audience was large enough--it would still be a voluntary system, and thus it would have the same free-rider issue as every other voluntary payment-for-content idea.
Posting "free" content on social media ends up driving advert revenues to the social media and search monopolies, leaving nothing for the content creators. There is only so much serious content that can be created for free.
If what we're left with is "free" content (i.e. the creator gets no income for creating and posting content), Facebook, Google and click-bait link farms of sensationalist headlines, we'll end up with a thoroughly homogenized web of "approved content" underwritten by lobbyists, the entertainment industry and elitist foundations/think tanks, and little in the way of real dissent or diversity of independent analysis.
In other words, we'll be left with officially generated and sanctioned fake news and "approved" dissent: unemployment is at record lows, inflation is near zero, the "recovery" is alive and well, Russia is the enemy and any suggestion to the contrary is propaganda that must be eradicated as fake news, etc.
Simply put, the web is becoming Orwellian. There's plenty of approved "diversity of opinion," but dissent is being sidelined to the fringes as a risk to the perfection of managed content.



If you found value in this content, please join me in seeking solutions by becoming a $1/month patron of my work via patreon.com.
Check out both of my new books, Inequality and the Collapse of Privilege($3.95 Kindle, $8.95 print) and Why Our Status Quo Failed and Is Beyond Reform($3.95 Kindle, $8.95 print, $5.95 audiobook) For more, please visit the OTM essentials website.

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Wednesday, November 15, 2017

The Superhero Complex: Are We Incapable of Saving Ourselves?

If we felt empowered in daily life, would we be so enamored of superheroes constantly saving our world from destruction?
It's been widely noted that the U.S. film industry ably functions as a pro-global hegemony propaganda machine: even when the plot features evil rogue elements at work in a global-hegemony agency (Pentagon, CIA, NSA, etc.), the competence of the agency is never in doubt, nor is the agency's ability to rid itself of the evil rogue element.
Evil conspiracies are revealed and the Good Guys/Gals win.
This depiction of official competence and the moral righteousness of patriotic employees is not surprising; these agencies have long "cooperated" with Hollywood on many levels.
More troubling is the recent film-industry depiction of our dependence on superheroes and their superpowers to set things right. The benign view is that Hollywood is always seeking new billion-dollar source materials for multi-film franchises, and comic book heroes are tailor-made for franchises: not only can multiple films be made about individual superheroes, but the potential for mix-and-match combinations of superheroes is practically endless.
The less benign view is that the popularity of superhero movies reflects a deep insecurity and worrisome desire for fantasy saviors, as if mere mortals can no longer save themselves with their pitiful real-world powers.
Psychoanalyzing the zeitgeist of films has long been a popular parlor game: much has been written about the popularity of monster films (often featuring nuclear radiation as the trigger of the mayhem) in 1950s Japan, and the meaning of the American Noir films in the 1950s.
Correspondent C.D. recently submitted an interpretation of Hollywood's superhero movies: is our collective fascination with superheroes reflecting a sense that we no longer have the power to save ourselves?
"One of the things I've been thinking about lately is the idea of TPTB (the Powers That Be) using entertainment, specifically movies, to keep the masses from rising up. Have you noticed how many modern movies use the archetype of the hero, but place that hero in opposition to some type of system (e.g. the Empire in Star Wars), or we have superheros. In both instances, there is a type of cathartic release for the audience's frustrations with the current system. When the evil empire is defeated in the movie, people get an emotional release and they feel less motivated to deal with the real world empire.
When a superhero takes care of the problem, the audience is lulled into the pattern of thinking that someone else will take care of things. Also, often these superhero movies present the average Joe/Jane and the authorities as incompetents who need saving, which reinforces a feeling of helplessness to take on big powers. I'm sure others have come up with this type of analysis and I may be repeating what they have said, but it's worth further consideration."
Thank you, C.D. I don't think it's much of a stretch to say that many people sense their power within the system is extremely limited, as is their power to radically transform their own situation.
As for cheering for the ragtag rebels resisting the Empire--how many people feel divested from America, that is, they sense their "ownership" in the Empire's wealth and power is near-zero? How many feel disempowered and disenfranchised?
It's not much of a leap from social, political and financial divestiture to feeling that it takes superpowers to change one's circumstances or save the system from disorder and destruction.
Are we incapable of saving ourselves from a self-destructive status quo owned and operated by the few at the expense of the many? If we felt empowered in daily life, would we be so enamored of superheroes constantly saving our world from destruction? If we felt the system still had the wherewithal to restore itself, would we need so many superheroes?
Or maybe it's all just good clean (highly profitable) fun, or a sci-fi/fantasy updating of Greek Mythology. Still, that practically every other movie is another installment of the superhero franchise seems to beg for a look beneath the surface appeal of these escapist extravaganzas.



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Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Is This Why Productivity Has Tanked and Wealth Inequality Has Soared?

Needless but highly profitable forced-upgrades are the bread and butter of the tech industry.
One of the enduring mysteries in conventional economics (along with why wages for the bottom 95% have stagnated) is the recent decline in productivity gains (see chart). Since gains in productivity are the ultimate source of higher wages, these issues are related. Simply put, advances in productivity are core to widespread prosperity.
But that's only half the problem--productivity gains have flowed to the top of the income-wealth pyramid as financialization and cartels have replaced real-world wealth creation as the source of wealth-income.
Longtime correspondent Zeus Y. recently identified one cause of declining productivity and the narrowing of financial gains in the top: the quasi-cartels that dominate our economy profit by introducing and maintaining inefficiencies, not eliminating them. This runs counter to the accepted wisdom in classical free-market capitalism that generating efficiencies increases profits.
Here is Zeus's explanation of this perverse dynamic:
"With Big Data and Big Profit dominating the products, services, and platforms of everything from iOS operating updates to delivery of healthcare, let's make the plain-as-day argument: PROFIT and EXTRACTION MEANS PRODUCING INEFFICIENCIES, NOT ELIMINATING THEM.
They make their money by creating inefficiencies, bottlenecks, and gatekeepings that they can profit from. Every middleman function they can stick in their system is a potential profit source for them.
This was especially apparent to me in all the bugs I have experienced with Apple upgrades on my phone. I have to take the time to fix their screw-ups, which are designed to aggregate my data and usage to profit them. You see this with the manipulation of Facebook, creating a very black and white world that motivates and manipulates people to a froth with filters and algorithms that reinforce their biases.
This is not free and democratic access, but inefficient and narrow manipulation, cutting down on alternatives, possibilities, and better ways to think and do. What would a more efficient and democratic system look like, one where access, freedom, and, yes, real efficiencies (especially democratic and community efficiencies) would predominate?"
Thank you, Zeus. As Marx observed 150 years ago, the most profitable arrangement is monopoly, or failing that, a cartel that controls a specific market. Thus it is no surprise that Google, Facebook and Amazon are attempting to become quasi-monopolies in their respective spaces, just as Standard Oil gained a near-monopoly on the oil market in the early 20th century.
Corporations no longer seek a coercive old-style monopoly that violates anti-trust laws; today they eliminate competition by scaling up to dominate a sector. I covered this in Are Facebook and Google the New Colonial Powers?(September 18, 2017).
Once a corporation achieves dominance, it can impose profitable inefficiencies (for example, healthcare and higher education), force customers to perform labor that was once done by companies as part of their service (self-checkout, endless software updates), and profit from customer data with little fear of blowback: now that you need us, we can extract maximum profit from you without fear of regulation or competition.
Once customers are dependent (or addicted, in the case of opioids, mobile telephony, Facebook, etc.), then corporations can impose all sorts of burdens on their customers and demand annual ransom, a.k.a. software licensing and/or update fees.
Consider Microsoft's dominance in operating systems and Office. Microsoft can sell buggy, insecure software, and require constant purchases of "upgraded" software that has lower functionality than the product it replaces.
The same dynamic is in play with Apple and Android OS in the mobile space. I was recently forced to upgrade my perfectly functional iPhone 4 because some apps only work now in the latest iOS. Meanwhile, Windows 10 is demanding I upgrade my BIOS so my laptop can accept the latest Win10 update. Needless to say, Microsoft offers zero assistance beyond the nag-box.
Needless but highly profitable forced-upgrades are the bread and butter of the tech industry. If we actually valued efficiency and productivity, our system would encourage durability, efficiency and reducing waste. Alas, all three of these worthy traits drastically reduce profits, so instead our maximizing profits by any means available system incentivizes planned obsolescence, inefficiencies controlled by cartels and endless waste of goods, services, customer time and resources.
The immense profitability of inefficiencies controlled by monopolies, quasi-monopolies and cartels is a key reason productivity has faltered and gains flow only to the top. There are other models for distributing software and services, for example, open-source software. There are other models of ownership, for example community ownership of resources and enterprises. But given the financial and political dominance of cartels, these options have been neutered or marginalized.


If you found value in this content, please join me in seeking solutions by becoming a $1/month patron of my work via patreon.com.
Check out both of my new books, Inequality and the Collapse of Privilege($3.95 Kindle, $8.95 print) and Why Our Status Quo Failed and Is Beyond Reform($3.95 Kindle, $8.95 print, $5.95 audiobook) For more, please visit the OTM essentials website.

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Monday, November 13, 2017

Mideast Turmoil: Follow the Oil, Follow the Money

In this scenario, time is running out for Saudi Arabia's free-spending royalty and state-- and for all the other free-spending oil exporters.
While there are numerous dynamics at work in the turmoil roiling Saudi Arabia and by extension, the Mideast, one way to cut to the chase is to follow the oil, follow the money. Correspondent B.D. recently posited a factor that has been largely overlooked in the geopolitical / fate-of-the-petrodollar discussions:
Perhaps the core dynamic is a technical one of diminished oil production. Here is Bart's commentary:
"I think the Saudis may be quickly running out of profitable oil to produce/export.
I think they tried to over-produce for a while to damage the competition... and they now have production issues resulting from that. (As has happened in the past)
I think they may have recently slipped over the event horizon for being the world's swing producer of 'cheap-ish and abundant' oil. That has huge ramifications for the global markets ability to quickly respond to supply/demand fluctuations.
I suspect they’re no longer cutting production voluntarily ... they are now in the grip of a technically driven decline in output. (Why else begin selling off ARAMCO now?)
I doubt that many national economies can handle $70+ oil for very long... price will be limited by the ability of the consumers to pay. What I assume should happen is relentless severe volatility in the absence of a big swing producer that can open up or shut in production with comparative ease."
Thank you, B.D. Let's start with what's well-established about Saudi oil production:
1. The days of sticking a straw in the sand and oil gushing out are long gone. Oil production now depends on costly technologies such as pressurizing the wells with seawater, CO2, etc.
2. The soaring population of Saudi Arabia is dramatically increasing domestic consumption of the Kingdom's oil, reducing the amount of oil available for export.
3. The industry is skeptical of official Saudi estimates of proven reserves and production capacity.
Let's sketch a conjectural scenario which explains the extraordinary purges and power plays underway in Saudi Arabia:
1. As B.D. posited, Saudi production is already flat-out, and there is no million-barrel-per-day slack that can be brought online to depress global prices, crushing competitors and maintaining control of crude prices. In other words, the Saudis no longer have the technical / production capability needed to control global oil pricing-- a power that they've enjoyed since 1973.
2. Saudi production is declining due to technical/real-world factors (depletion of super-major fields, etc.) that cannot be overcome at a financial cost that make sense at $50/barrel oil.
3. The possibility of a global recession unfolding in 2018 is rising. In a global recession, oil demand will fall, crushing the marginal pricing power of exporters.
4. The Saudi royal family and the Kingdom's vast state welfare system is no longer sustainable should oil fall into the $30-$35/barrel range due to a collapse of global demand.
5. The only way out is to grab the power now that will be needed to slash domestic welfare and domestic consumption of oil/gas, i.e. the power to overcome resistance within the royal family to severe reductions in royal/central state budgets.
Geopolitically speaking, very few if any oil exporters are able to prosper and fund their regional/global ambitions if oil plummets to $35/barrel and stays there for years. Every oil exporter makes brave statements about being just fine with $25/barrel oil, but the reality is every major oil exporter is dependent on oil revenues of a scale that can only be generated at $50/barral and up.
The discovery of new oil fields has fallen far below global consumption.
Meanwhile, U.S. producers have taken market share away from OPEC exporters, effectively reducing their influence over prices, as U.S. producers are to some degree the marginal swing producers.
The costs of exploration and production changed around the turn of the 21st century. The cost of discovering, extracting, refining and transporting new oil have increased dramatically.
All this suggests oil will have to become more costly for it to make financial sense to produce it. But as B.D. observed (and analyst Gail Tverberg has explained in great detail), oil-consuming economies will be pushed into stagnation/recession by significantly higher oil prices.
Will China Bring an Energy-Debt Crisis? (Our Finite World, Gail Tverberg)
In this scenario, time is running out for Saudi Arabia's free-spending royalty and state-- and for all the other free-spending oil exporters. As a global recession looms ever closer, every oil exporter edges closer to the event horizon of financial, social, and political disorder and upheaval. Venezuela is just the first domino that's toppling. The Saudi leadership is trying to avoid being in the line of oil exporting dominoes that will fall in the 2018 global recession.


If you found value in this content, please join me in seeking solutions by becoming a $1/month patron of my work via patreon.com.
Check out both of my new books, Inequality and the Collapse of Privilege($3.95 Kindle, $8.95 print) and Why Our Status Quo Failed and Is Beyond Reform($3.95 Kindle, $8.95 print, $5.95 audiobook) For more, please visit the OTM essentials website.

NOTE: Contributions/subscriptions are acknowledged in the order received. Your name and email remain confidential and will not be given to any other individual, company or agency.
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Sunday, November 12, 2017

Forget the Bogus Republican "Reform": Here's What Real Tax Reform Would Look Like

The point is to end the current system in which billionaires get all the privileges and financial benefits of owning assets in the U.S. but don't pay taxes that are proportional to the benefits they extract.
As has been widely noted, the Republicans' proposed "tax reform" is not only just more BAU (business as usual, i.e. cut taxes for the wealthy), it's also not real reform. At best, it's just another iteration of D.C. policy tweaks packaged for PR purposes as "reform."
You want real tax reform? This is what real tax reform would look like:
1. Shred the entire 2,700 page tax code and replace it with a 25-page code. As I explained in The Fetid Swamp of Tax Reform (November 10, 2017), the 2,700 page current tax code is a complexity thicket designed to hide tax breaks and subsidies for big political donors.
Politicos give lip service to simplifying the tax code for PR purposes, but no politico actually wants radical simplification because this would eliminate the biggest grab-bag of political favors available to pass out to big donors.
Though radical simplification is politically impossible, it's the first and most important real reform.
2. Replace the entire convoluted mess of income tax for the bottom 99.5% with transaction taxes collected at the point of transaction. A transaction tax is similar to a value-added tax (VAT) or sales tax, but it's radically different in key ways: a transaction tax is levied on financial transactions, not just sales.
A transaction tax would be levied on every high-frequency stock trade, every loan that was sold, every financial transaction anywhere in the U.S. or any transaction anywhere in the world involving a U.S.-based entity or asset.
Since the vast majority of financial transactions are executed on behalf of banks, corporations and wealthy individuals, a transaction tax would naturally collect more taxes from those at the top of the wealth-power pyramid. The transaction tax could be very modest because it would be collected on billions of transactions--everything from stock trades to purchases to loan payments.
A transaction tax couldn't be dodged by moving assets to offshore tax havens or renouncing citizenship. The model here is property taxes, which are collected regardless of who owns the property, where they do their banking, their citizenship, etc. The entity that owns the property must pay the tax, or forfeit ownership via an eventual auctioning off of the property to pay the tax liens.
Nobody cares if the owner banks in a tax haven, or declares taxes in another country; either they pay the property tax due or they forfeit their ownership.
A transaction tax eliminates all tax returns, all accounting for income, deductions and expenses, and correlates to wealth/income. The working-poor household would pay a transaction fee when they buy something at a dollar store, but the fee would be much less than current state sales taxes. The point of the transaction tax is that it includes all the transactions of the wealthy class that aren't simple purchases of goods and services.
To insure a progressive tax structure, financial transactions above certain thresholds of size and frequency would be taxed at a higher rate.
The fundamental idea behind a progressive tax structure is that taxes paid reflect the financial benefits flowing to the top class. In other words, taxes collected should reflect this chart of where the the gains have flowed in recent years:
As I noted last week, the wealthy class already pays most of the taxes. But the chart above makes it painfully clear that most of the financial gains aren't flowing to the top 10%; they're flowing to the top 1/10th of 1%.
3. This reality demands a tax structure that correlates to where the gains in income and wealth are flowing. Once again the model should be property taxes: whatever entity owns assets in the U.S. should pay a slice of those assets in taxes.
It doesn't matter whether the entity is in Timbuktu or the Cayman Islands, or if they have a formidable array of attorneys slaving away for them; if they own an asset in the U.S.-- real property, stocks, bonds, mortgages,etc.--they have to pay the equivalent of a property tax on assets above a high threshold; high enough that the bottom 99.5% are for the most part excluded (for example, above $10 million).
There is no other way to break the injustice of offshore tax havens described in this article: Why have we built a paradise for offshore billionaires?
If an individual or corporation doesn't want to pay any tax in the U.S. in this tax structure, fine, all they have to do is sell all their U.S.-based assets and execute no transactions with any U.S.-based entities or assets.
The point is to end the current system in which billionaires get all the privileges and financial benefits of owning assets in the U.S. but don't pay taxes that are proportional to the benefits they extract. If billionaires want to move all their assets and transactions to some other nation, that's their prerogative. But at least they won't be pillaging the U.S. and its residents and getting away with financial murder.
A transaction-asset-based tax structure would free the bottom 99.5% of an immense burden of complexity and compliance while ensuring that taxes were levied in proportion to one's financial activities and that those benefiting the most from owning U.S. assets would pay taxes that were proportional to their benefits.
A levy of 3% (0.03%) on $1 trillion is $30 billion. Total net worth of U.S. households rose to $95 trillion this year. Excluding pensions, IRAs, and 401K accounts of the bottom 99.5%, total net assets--the majority of which are owned by the super-wealthy--total around $60 trillion.
A 3% tax on all assets above $10 million would bring in around $1.5 trillion, the total amount collected in federal income taxes in 2015. A two-tiered transaction tax would bring in a similar amount, replacing the entire payroll taxes of Social Security and Medicare.
These two taxes would eliminate income and payroll taxes and all the enormous costs of compliance, and wipe out offshore tax havens. Since both transaction and asset taxes would be low, the motivation to sell all U.S. assets and execute no transactions involving U.S. based assets or entities would be low. Would it really be worth giving up all the enormous income streams flowing from U.S. assets to evade a 3% tax?
Is it worth going to a lot of trouble to evade a 36% corporate income tax and a 39.6% individual income tax? Definitely. Is it worth going to a lot of trouble to evade a 3% tax? To the super-wealthy, that's mere friction.


If you found value in this content, please join me in seeking solutions by becoming a $1/month patron of my work via patreon.com.
Check out both of my new books, Inequality and the Collapse of Privilege($3.95 Kindle, $8.95 print) and Why Our Status Quo Failed and Is Beyond Reform($3.95 Kindle, $8.95 print, $5.95 audiobook) For more, please visit the OTM essentials website.

NOTE: Contributions/subscriptions are acknowledged in the order received. Your name and email remain confidential and will not be given to any other individual, company or agency.
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