Ongoing Hostage Drama in the Corporate States of America

New York Times headline today about the querulous Democrats, faced with a 50-0 GOP threat to filibuster debate and a vote on raising the debt ceiling to pay for some of the $7,800,000,000,000 the GOP added to the national debt in the last four years, to tank the US economy and hurt Biden and his party in the 2022 elections. (Note, this false “deadlock” over extending the government’s ability to pay its past debts is calculated to make the Democrats waste their one shot at reconciliation on keeping the government running, not on the Build Back Better bill).

Phew, perhaps our moderate president will appoint a commission to publish a report on this in six months or so, after all the new Republican districts are gerrymandered into being in thirty or more states for the 2022-2031 elections.

In fairness to the NY Times and Democrats, there is a brutal hostage situation underway here. The minority-powered GOP is demonstrating over and over that they will do whatever is necessary to regain total power in the US. The Democratic party, with the slimmest of majorities in the House and Senate, is hostage to the united GOP and two of their own.

Conservative Joe Manchin III (Joe Manchin II owned both stores in the small town Joe III grew up in, was apparently generous giving credit to impoverished coal miners) and narcissistic corporate-funded sphinx Kyrsten Sinema, for whom the “c-word” seems pretty apt (goes equally well for Joe Manchin III, actually, though at least he gives half-baked rationales for his positions) stand athwart several needed reforms favored by most Americans.

Truth and alternative-truth are seen as interchangeable, incoherence and non sequitar are no problem, and in a pinch, the argument that there is no truth anyway, outside of a version of Christianity that would make Jesus weep, is dottily trotted out whenever only winning, especially after you lose, is an acceptable outcome.

Yes, Trump was raised by an abusive psychopath, so were the Koch boys, so were many of our greatest and most implacably competitive American winners. The exemplar of this kind of person, and its unchallengeable will to dominate, is the legally created vampire of eternal life, the corporate “person.” In the context of the shocking revelation that Facebook has winked at promoting fear, hate and rage because those driving emotions generate clicks and it’s so damn profitable, that, you know, who could resist? (even after you make your first $100,000,000,000 on personal wealth) we have this:

So, if you think about this, the manifest unfairness of it [the collection and sale of detailed, personalized user data, the lack of filters to protect society from lying hate speech that goes viral and actually incites violence] is magnified by a corporate culture that says the only people that matter are shareholders. And if you think about it, optimizing for shareholder value is like — it’s the equivalent of saying, “I’m just following orders.” It forgives all manner of sins. And when Frances Haugen was talking about the moral crisis of CEOs who maximize profits instead of the public good, one of the challenges here is that, as a country, we have accepted this notion that corporations should only worry about shareholder value.

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The Supreme Court, ever more openly corporatist, long ago ruled that corporations have only one mandate: to increase shareholder profits. American courts give tremendous deference to the “business judgment rule” which means if a business decision has any kind of rationale in the quest for increased shareholder profits, courts will not second guess the right of the business to make its profit-driven decisions, absent a showing of TREMENDOUS harm to society, beyond externalities like pollution, unemployment, global warming, a kerfuffle at the Capitol, etc. Here is multibillionaire Mark Zuckerberg’s one-time mentor:

ROGER McNAMEE: So, the thing here is there are two basic problems that we’re dealing with. One is the culture of American business, where CEOs are told to prioritize shareholder value at all costs. And it’s a little bit like the excuse “I’m just following orders,” right? That it absolves, essentially, all manner of sins. And that’s a big part of the problem at Facebook.

Essentially, think about the business this way. Advertising is the core of their economy. They get that through attention. And Facebook created a global network where people share things with their intimate friends. And what happened was, Facebook was the first medium on Earth to get access to what I call the inner self, the characteristics of people they would normally only disclose to their most intimate partners, friends, family. And in marketing, that stuff is gold. And the thing is, it’s not just valuable to traditional marketers. It’s incredibly valuable to scammers and people who are doing things that would otherwise be illegal. And if you think about what Facebook did, by connecting the whole world, it brought the world of scams into the mainstream.

So, when Mark says something like, “Well, you know, our advertisers consistently tell us they don’t want to be by hostile content,” the problem with that is that some of their biggest, most important advertisers are the actual people who spread dangerous content. So, if you think about “Stop the Steal,” that was an advertising campaign. If you think about anti-vax, those people are advertisers.

And so, the issue here for Facebook is they’ve created this network that is essentially an unpatrolled commercial place that preys on people’s emotions, because the best way to get people’s attention is to trigger fear or outrage. And so, the algorithms don’t sit there going, “I’m looking for fear or outrage.” What they do is they’re looking for things that get you to react. And it’s simply a fact of human nature, of human psychology, that fear and outrage are the most effective way to do that.

And that’s why Frances Haugen’s testimony is so devastating, because she is an expert in algorithm design. She is completely credible on this issue. And the stuff that she shared was not stuff that was her opinion. It was research created by the best people at Facebook at the direction of Facebook’s management. And so, when Facebook comes out afterward saying she only worked there for two years and she wasn’t in any of the meetings, none of that is relevant, and it’s sort of classic deflection by Facebook. And I would argue that Facebook’s responses yesterday really built Frances Haugen’s credibility, because if you sat there after that hearing, just ask yourself: Who did you find more credible?

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McNamee went on to make a larger, more fundamental point about our corporate culture:

But my perspective on this is, if I could get into that room with them [Congress], I’d say, “Listen, Facebook is the poster child for what’s wrong today. But the real problem is that in the United States we have abdicated too much power to corporations. We’ve essentially said we’re not going to regulate them, we’re not going to supervise what they’re doing. And in the process, we’ve allowed power to accumulate in a highly concentrated way, which is bad for democracy.”

But, worse than that, we’ve allowed business models, and, as you just described, surveillance capitalism, this notion of using surveillance to gather every piece of data possible about a person, the construction of models that allow you to predict their behavior, and then recommendation engines that allow you to manipulate their behavior — that that business model, which began with Google, spread to Facebook, Amazon and Microsoft, is now being adopted throughout the economy. You cannot do a transaction anywhere in the economy without people collecting data, which they then buy and sell in a third-party marketplace. And that is, in my opinion — and I think if you ask Shoshana Zuboff, she would agree with this — that that is as immoral as child labor.

And if I could sit these members of the Senate down, I’d say, “Listen, guys, you’re mad at Facebook today, but the way to solve the problem for kids, the way to solve the problem for democracy, the way to solve all of these problems” — and Jessica, I’m sure, is going to talk about the civil rights aspects of this, because they are humongous — “but the way to do that is to end surveillance capitalism, because if we can’t protect the rights of individuals — if you will, our human autonomy — what do we have?”

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