Pluralistic: 14 Dec 2020

Originally published at: https://pluralistic.net/2020/12/14/situation-normal/


Today's links



Situation Normal (permalink)

Situation Normal is Leonard Richardson's long-awaited second novel, a droll, weird, fast-moving space-opera with a gigantic cast, myriad subplots, and fascinating premises – a novel so brilliantly conceived that it runs like precision clockwork.

https://bookshop.org/books/situation-normal/9781936460991

Richardson's debut novel, 2013's Constellation Games, was an utterly madcap space-opera about an alien invasion that makes first contact with a snarky games reviewer whose day job is making pony-themed shovelware games for young Brazilian girls.

https://memex.craphound.com/2013/02/20/constellation-games-debut-sf-novel-floored-me-with-its-brilliance/

Situation Normal shares a recognizable lineage with Constellation Games, but it is so much more ambitious, concerning itself with a clash of galactic empires spanning interstellar distances and implicating dozens of species.

The human-dominated Outreach – a kind of corporatized version of Iain Banks's Culture, except that the AIs are all personified, hyperintelligent brands – and the multispecies, chaotic Fist empires have lived in peace for a generation.

But now war has broken out, and the Fist has a devastating weapon: a gaseous drug that makes humans live vivid hallucinations of fictional (and real) peoples' lives, from meeting Jesus to learning woodworking.

The Fist has solved the problem of beaming this gas directly INTO THE GASMASKS of the human crews of warships, using it to turn them all into committed lifelong pacifists, swiftly turning the war for the Fist.

Against this backdrop, we experience all manner of skullduggery: heists and smugglers' runs, breathtaking draft-dodger escapes, political intrigues, interspecies erotic adventures, and the painful experience of alien puberty.

From rent-a-cops to child soldiers to mad scientists to religious LARPers who treat old pulp magazines as sacred texts to colony organisms that hijack the bodies of alien dinosaurs, SITUATION NORMAL has something for everyone.

This is a Leonard Richardson novel so it is full of sly references to Richardson's day-job: a rogue librarian free-software hacker who, among other things, discovered that thousands of seemingly copyrighted books were actually in the public domain:

https://www.crummy.com/2019/07/22/0

And completely revolutionized how electronic book-lending can be done while working for the NYPL:

https://www.crummy.com/writing/speaking/2015-RESTFest/

Richardson is a prodigiously talented writer with a programmer's talent for structuring big, complex works. SITUATION NORMAL was worth the seven-year wait since his stunning debut.



China's best investigative stories of 2020 (permalink)

2020 was, obviously, a hell of a year, even by the standards of the decade, whose every New Year's Eve was heralded by some variation on "Thank goodness that's behind us, now we can finally get back to normal."

The ongoing, accelerating crises of capitalism and climate are attended by a long string of shock doctrine tactics and pathological political outcomes. The covid crisis provided cover for more looting and provoked more toxic politics.

In addition to this "normal" drumbeat of scandals, the pandemic also meant a lot of misgovernance: leaders who got out of their depth and, through hubris, panic or disregard, acted in ways that hurt and killed people.

Following this in the USA alone is hard; even harder to track the Anglosphere, let alone the west. Most Americans probably didn't track First Nations uprisings in Canada; nor the bizarre twists of Brexit, nor Australia's climate denial in the face of undeniable emergencies.

To say nothing of the Gilets Jaunes, the anti-masker Nazis who literally stormed the Reichstag, the farcical corruption scandals in Israel's parliament, the twists and turns of Denmark's mink cull, Nigeria's #ENDSARS uprisings, and so on and so on.

Even if you followed all that, you probably weren't tuned into the scandals that roiled China in 2020; scandals that were unearthed by investigative journalists, including many at state media outlets, who took severe risks to bring out the truth.

The Global Investigative Journalism Network has just published its annual roundup of 2020's most important investigative stories from China and Taiwan, and it's a vital window on otherwise largely invisible (and yet very, very important) political stories.

https://gijn.org/2020/12/14/editors-pick-2020s-best-investigative-stories-from-china-and-taiwan/

The picks include Freezing Point Weekly's scoop that Wuhan's health authorities maintained both official and unofficial diagnostic criteria for covid, which allowed them to make their handling of the outbreak seem far better than it was.

https://mp.weixin.qq.com/s/vysNta8IU2wbRBv-c3aS4Q

Renwu Magazine's deep dive into app-based delivery drivers is eerily familiar to anyone following the worker-misclassification scandals in the west, but the difference is that Renwu's investigation sparked a national dialog and led to real reforms.

https://zhuanlan.zhihu.com/p/225120404

China News Weekly's comprehensive postmortem on the failures of health authorities to get a lid on Wuhan's covid outbreak was swiftly delete, but copies of it remain online:

https://k.sina.cn/article_1409194012_53fe981c00100pg2i.html

The Reporter gives us a Taiwanese take on Macedonian troll-farms, producing a masterful and nuanced look at influence operations with an emphasis on the Pacific Rim.

https://www.twreporter.org/topics/cyberwarfare-units-disinformation-fake-news

The list closes out with two horrific stories on domestic violence in China which is terribly under-covered by the Chinese press (which is, in this regard, no different to its western counterparts).

First is Guyu Story Lab's terrifying tale of a woman who was immolated by her violent ex-husband. It sparked nationwide outrage over police indifference to domestic violence…and a campaign that was deleted from the internet within 24 hours.

https://www.thepaper.cn/newsDetail_forward_9414526

And finally Sanlian Life's Serialeque true crime story of a woman whose husband was arrested for murdering and dismembering her. The story is a rich biography of both their lives, seeking some understanding from their origins.

https://finance.sina.com.cn/wm/2020-08-26/doc-iivhvpwy3213669.shtml



Where money comes from (permalink)

Accounting prof and GND cofounder Richard Murphy wrote an astounding thread over the weekend explaining where money comes from and what purpose taxation serves.

https://twitter.com/RichardJMurphy/status/1337737606688333826

He's since published an edited version under the title "Macroeconomics, money and post-Brexit recovery, all in one Twitter thread," saying it "took four hours and 40 years of thinking to write."

https://www.taxresearch.org.uk/Blog/2020/12/12/macroeconomics-money-and-post-brexit-recovery-all-in-one-twitter-thread/

It's a masterclass in the real world of money creation and taxation, beyond simplistic – and ahistorical – stories about money emerging from barter, followed by confiscation of our money by governments.

The reality is obviously that money comes from government spending. That's how money gets into the economy, because only governments are allowed to create money, so all money starts with government spending.

But what is money? Modern money – money over the past 50 years – is "just a promise to pay." When you borrow £1000 from the bank, you promise to pay it back. The bank opens a loan account and credits your savings account £1000 – a promise to give you that money on demand.

"Two promises. Two accounts. And as a result we get new money. That is how all money is created. It is as simple as that. There is no one else’s money involved in this process. The bank does not lend out the money saved with them."

"There are no notes and coin moved from one pile to another pile to back this all up either. There are just two promises. And then there is new money."

Money is a promise. It's easier for some people than others to get money is that their promises are more credible.

If the government wants to borrow money, it can do so very cheaply because its promise to repay that money is very credible. They have their own bank, and they issue their own money. The government can always repay its debts.*

(*Note we're talking about "monetarily sovereign" governments: governments that borrow in a free-floating currency that they themselves issue – not Venezuela, Zimbabwe, pre-crisis Argentina, or eurozone countries)

When the bank loans you money, you make a promise to repay it. When you put money in the bank, it makes a promise to repay you. Governments – whose promises to repay are credible – back banks' promises through deposit insurance (a promise to create more money if needed).

Murphy asks, why do we even need a government in this picture? Why can't we all just make promises to each other and issue IOUs? Because we need a backstop: an entity that creates currency and can always repay any debt.

It's not just the government's ability to issue currency makes its promises better than everyone else's – it's also the ability to tax. Spending creates money, and taxing destroys it.

Tax is not collected before the government spends. The government spends money into existence. It doesn't need to tax us before it can spend money. But taxing limits how much money circulates.

If the government creates money without destroying it, eventually there will be too much money in circulation and prices will go up – inflation. Governments aren't households and they don't need balanced books.

A balanced budget (in which the government taxes as much as it spends) leaves no money to circulate. If there's too much money in circulation – if there's an inflation problem – we might want that, but if governments net-remove money every year, the economy collapses.

But how do you know how much money should be taken out or put into the economy? Right now, we control inflation by targeting a certain unemployment rate, AKA the NAIRU (non-accelerating inflation rate of unemployment).

The theory of the NAIRU is that if a certain percentage of your neighbors are unemployed, there's just enough money in circulation. If there was more, someone would offer them a job (and inflation would kick in). If there was less, there's be more people looking for work.

The NAIRU is supposed to be the sweet spot, but for people whose unemployment is deliberately cultivated in order to prevent inflation, it's not sweet at all. These people must be miserable, scared and precarious or we all suffer from inflation.

It's not just unemployed people: all precarious, low-paid work, all withholding of benefits like childcare and healthcare and retirement and eldercare are there in the name of fighting inflation.

Murphy: "There has to be a better way to manage the value of money than this."

There is. A job guarantee: a job at a socially inclusive wage with good benefits – not paid for with taxes, but with new money creation (as with all government spending).

The new money would then be taken out of circulation by taxing the people earning these good wages at the same rate as their non-jobs-guarantee peers. If this created inflation, we could raise taxes to reduce the money supply (not to pay for the program!).

Finally, Murphy asks why governments bother to borrow at all? Why not just use spending and taxation to manage the economy. The answer is that government debt – bonds – aren't borrowing at all.

They're a way for the government to offer a safe interest-bearing savings account for sums that exceed deposit insurance at your local bank. In the USA, the FDIC guarantees up to $250,000 per depositor. If you've got more than that in the bank when it fails, you're screwed.

So if you're a pension fund or a corporation, you can buy treasury bonds and be guaranteed a small rate of return on them – but, more importantly, you can get the government's promise to pay you back, a promise backed by the ability to create money at will.

It's an important point: not only would "eliminating government debt" take all the money out of circulation, it would also eliminate T-bills, the bedrock of all institutional savings.

Murphy closes by explaining what this all means:

  • Money comes from governments
  • Banks wouldn't exist without the government's promises to pay

  • Taxes don't fund government spending

  • Taxation happens after spending, not before

  • Governments spend their own money, not taxpayers' money

  • Taxes control inflation, they don't fund programs

  • Governments borrow because they choose to (in order to create a safe savings account), but they don't need to

  • Governments need not ever have debt crises; monetarily sovereign governments can always pay debts in the currencies they issue

  • Governments set interest rates

  • Interest rates don't control inflation – taxes do

  • Full employment at fair wages pays for itself

  • There is no need for austerity

And finally: "By really understanding something as simple as how money is created – and by being aware that it is never in short supply as a result – we can rebuild from the mess that we are in. We can have the sustainable world we want."

(Image: Eluveitie, CC BY-SA 3.0)



Raising money for Chelsea Manning (permalink)

As power concentrates into ever-fewer hands, we are increasingly dependent on whistleblowers – insiders who come forward to tell the truth about what is being done in our name.

The powerful know this, and go to great lengths to destroy whistleblowers as a warning to others.

When Chelsea Manning was a US Army Private, she leaked a trove of US government cables to journalists, revealing widespread corruption, from the coverup of the US military's murder of Reuters journalists to cozy deals with the world's worst dictators.

Manning was betrayed by a journalist she'd trusted and was imprisoned and tortured by the US government. After her sentence was commuted by Obama on his way out of office, she was re-imprisoned for refusing to testify before a grand jury.

Apologists for corruption and imperialism have pulled out all the stops since to keep her from finding even a sliver of peace and recognition. In 2017, Harvard rescinded her fellowship offer because Sean Spicer (seriously) objected to it.

https://www.usatoday.com/story/opinion/2017/09/21/spicer-manning-lewandowski-harvard-succumbs-clickbait/686119001/

Manning told the truth to the American people about what their government was doing in their name. Spicer lied to the American people while drawing a public salary. Harvard sided with Spicer.

Despite the powerful enemies who pursue their petty vendetta against her, Manning has continued to do good work, teaching AI and machine learning on her Twitch channel, and lecturing on prison support and mutual aid.

The activist Lisa Rein has set up a Gofundme fundraiser to help Manning pay her bills: rent, groceries and other monthly bills. They're seeking $33k, and as of this writing have raised less than $2k. I will be contributing (in Sean Spicer's name) after I publish this.

If you can afford to contribute, I hope you will too.

https://www.gofundme.com/f/happy-birthday-chelsea-manning



Someone Comes to Town, Someone Leaves Town part 26 (permalink)

This week on my podcast: part 26 of my serialized reading of "Someone Comes to Town, Someone Leaves Town," my 2006 novel that Gene Wolfe called "a glorious book unlike any book you’ve ever read." It's my last podcast of 2020!

https://craphound.com/news/2020/12/14/someone-comes-to-town-someone-leaves-town-part-26/

You can catch up on the other installments here:

https://craphound.com/podcast/?s=%22someone%20comes%22

and subscribe to my podcast feed here:

https://feeds.feedburner.com/doctorow_podcast

Here's a direct link to the MP3 (hosting courtesy of the Internet Archive; they'll host your stuff for free, forever, too!):

https://archive.org/download/Cory_Doctorow_Podcast_372/Cory_Doctorow_Podcast_372_-_Someone_Comes_to_Town_Someone_Leaves_Town_026.mp3



This day in history (permalink)

#10yrsago Naomi Wolf on rape, justice and Julian Assange https://www.huffpost.com/entry/jaccuse-sweden-britain-an_b_795899

#5yrsago The Red Cross brought in an AT&T; exec as CEO and now it’s a national disaster https://www.propublica.org/article/the-corporate-takeover-of-the-red-cross

#5yrsago Philips pushes lightbulb firmware update that locks out third-party bulbs https://www.techdirt.com/articles/20151214/07452133070/lightbulb-drm-philips-locks-purchasers-out-third-party-bulbs-with-firmware-update.shtml

#5yrsago Cybercrime 3.0: stealing whole houses https://memex.craphound.com/2015/12/14/cybercrime-3-0-stealing-whole-houses/

#1yrago McKinsey’s internal mythology compares management consultants to “the Marine Corps, the Roman Catholic Church, and the Jesuits” https://www.propublica.org/article/how-mckinsey-makes-its-own-rules

#1yrago Radicalized is one of the Wall Street Journal’s top sf books of 2019! https://memex.craphound.com/2019/12/14/radicalized-is-one-of-the-wall-street-journals-top-sf-books-of-2019/

#1yrago AI Now’s annual report: stop doing “emotion detection”; stop “socially sensitive” facial recognition; make AI research diverse and representative — and more https://ainowinstitute.org/AI_Now_2019_Report.pdf

#1yrago Private equity looters startled to be called out by name in Taylor Swift award-acceptance speech https://nypost.com/2019/12/13/private-equity-stunned-to-be-dragged-into-battle-between-taylor-swift-and-scooter-braun/

#1yrago Lawmaker admits not independently researching lobbyist’s claim that ectopic fetuses could be reimplanted in the uterus, blames medical journals https://radio.wosu.org/post/lawmaker-says-he-didnt-research-ectopic-pregnancy-procedure-adding-bill



Colophon (permalink)

Today's top sources: Lisa Rein (https://twitter.com/lisarein), Naked Capitalism (https://www.nakedcapitalism.com/).

Currently writing: My next novel, "The Lost Cause," a post-GND novel about truth and reconciliation. Friday's progress: 517 words (92561 total)

Currently reading: The City We Became, NK Jemisin

Latest podcast: Someone Comes to Town, Someone Leaves Town (part 26) https://craphound.com/news/2020/12/14/someone-comes-to-town-someone-leaves-town-part-26/

Upcoming appearances:

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