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Just to start: my father worked for a consumer products company, one that made biscuits and the like. Cookies, crackers, breakfast cereals, that sort of thing. And when I was a small boy, he used to say to me, in that cryptic way that dads often distribute nuggets of gnomic wisdom, things like: “See that cereal that you’re eating? Do you know that when mum pays for that, mostly what she’s paying for is the box.”

What he meant is that the cereal (or cookies or what have you) itself was incredibly inexpensive to manufacture. (Or, as his company always called it, to “bake.” They had bakeries, not factories.) Most of what it cost the company to bring their goods to market and to sell them on that market went into PR – the design of the packaging, the composition of the ad campaigns, and of course the price to place the advertisements where they appeared. When you buy the Corn Flakes, mostly you’re paying for the iconic rooster on the box, etc.

And so: today, from a Huck Magazine post, which seems to be inspired by Paul Mason’s new book, called “Five postcapitalist projects that offer a blueprint of a new world.”

When was the last time you saw an encyclopaedia? Upsetters Wikipedia have destroyed the old model of profiting from information by locking it away and charging people to access it. Wikipedia not only allows anyone to read for free, but its open editing has allowed it to grow faster than a commercial operation ever could and its advertising-free setup is believed to deprive the ad industry of $3 billion per year. See also: Wikileaks who are using open source principles to revolutionise access to information and hold governments to account.

There is something – and something I’ve long been preoccupied with on this blog – incredibly strange about one of the sentences in this paragraph. It is this one: Wikipedia not only allows anyone to read for free, but its open editing has allowed it to grow faster than a commercial operation ever could and its advertising-free setup is believed to deprive the ad industry of $3 billion per year. 

If you want to see the face of the new, or not really that new but at least burgeoning drive to establish new enclosures of the commons, it is visible here. There’s an odd mysticism, or dark metaphysics, that is at play. Wikipedia, in providing content without advertisements, is actually stealing away or squandering income that might have been derived, in private hands, from advertisements or sales. Which, in a certain sense  – a sense highly palpable if, say, you were the owner of the failing Encyclopaedia Britannica business – would seem pressingly true.

But of course it is not true, not in the least. No more than the fresh air that we breathe is stealing from the possible fresh air companies that might be formed to sell it to us, or the water we drink is stealing from corporations that, improbably, bottle the same stuff that comes out of our taps only to label it and sell it back to us for prices that are often higher than petrol. (Oh wait…)

But while (fortunately) the Britannica people didn’t, it seems, have the money to fight the market encroachment of the Wikipedians nor, perhaps, a leg to stand on argumentatively, this sort of attack on the state sector – in this case not as inefficient but as all too efficient – has become increasingly prevalent of late. The entire funding crisis at the BBC is grounded in attacks of this sort. There’s the kiss of death logic of the “If it’s popular, it’s beyond their remit to show it” argument. Strictly Come Dancing or Wimbledon could well be generating profits for Sky or someone else, and besides, they actually make people feel like the license fee isn’t such a bad deal after all.

But it’s not just the BBC that’s targeted by this “logic.” There’s a gathering storm regarding higher education “state monopolies” and the mystifying message that they’re blocking access to the “market” through their accreditation  cartels. It’s further absolutely clear that the animus against the NHS that exists amongst many Tories is equally based on anti-welfare-state ideas and the sense that there is big money to be made, that’s currently not being made, in the business of medicine. I’m sure if the cost of housing wasn’t so absurdly and eye-wateringly high, we’d be hearing attacks on the few vestiges of social housing left here and in America for inciting “market distortion.” And there are undoubtedly loads of bureaucratically subterranean aspects of the state sector, here and abroad, that are suffering from the same sorts of sorties.

Cynical ploys all of them, and in that sense no more interesting than any of the other hypocritical, fallacious, or just plain cruel attacks on the state sector than any of the others that we’ve seen during our age of austerity. But there is one thing that’s perhaps a bit interesting, as it’s a bit complex, about them.

In addition to the pretext of this line of argument, that state entities suck up market share without generating profit from it, there is an important subtext as well. Namely, that advertising costs us nothing. That is, of course it costs the corporations that advertise, but for the end user of the content that is funded by advertising, it is free.

This, of course, is little discussed. Certainly the media men aren’t going to bring it up. When Murdoch and his lobbying minions and PR flacks say, for instance, that “the BBC is a publicly funded entity that partially destroys our ability to sell advertising,” they of course never continue on to say, “advertising, that given the price that is paid for it, obviously must extract a huge amount of capital out of those that would be watching our channels instead of the BBC.”

When you ride on public transportation, that the bus interior or the carriage of the train is festooned with advertisements, does it cost you money, beyond the fare, to do so? Does it cost you money to use gmail, given all of those little ads that you ignore (but, we can assume, someone’s not ignoring them) on the sidebar? How much more does your newspaper cost you, given all of the car and mobile phone and supermarket advertisements that you find inside of it? How much do you spend, beyond the satellite bill and / or license fee, on spending a night in in front of the television?

I’m absolutely positive that corporations sometimes waste money on advertising, and I’m pretty sure that I’ve never clicked through a “sponsored ad” on Google. But on the other hand – they simply can’t be dumping all of that money, can’t have been dumping, for ages, all of that money, if someone, somehow, isn’t making it back in profit. If Wikipedia is running content that otherwise could generate $3 billion per year, then presumably the attention captured by this content, if not in the hands of the Wikipedias, is worth at least $3 billion per year to the companies that would have been advertising on these sites.

It all, it seems to me, goes back to what my father used to tell me all those years ago. “Mostly the price of the Cornflakes is the box of the Cornflakes.” What I’d like to work on (although sometimes it seems to me to be potentially a project of Kapital-like demands on my brain-power and time, neither of which I have at this point) is a study of just this quasi-mystical value equation. What does the ad before the YouTube video cost us to watch? What would we “save” were the ad not there, were YouTube a public institution rather than an arm of a massive profit-seeking corporation? 

I want to do this because I’ve long believed that the leap from Why not ads on the side of the bus to Let’s dismantle the remains of the welfare state is not only a short one, it’s one in which each step is informed by the selfsame logic. That is, it’s informed by a deep misapprehension about the value of the commons and the sort of life that is lived on them.

UPDATE: Armando Ianucci is on the case this morning in the Guardian

“It’s Facebook and Google who came along and ate up all newspapers’ classified ads. Yet it’s the BBC, who run no ads, that gets the blame, while it’s Google and Facebook that get the helpful tax arrangements from HMRC.”

While on the other hand, in the same paper on the same day, we have Sturgeon and the SNP showing her/its true colours:

“One of the things the last 12 months has demonstrated is that the old model of public service broadcasting – important though I think it is – doesn’t work well enough. It no longer reflects the complex, varied and rich political and social realities of the UK.”

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August 27, 2015 at 12:07 am

privatising the mail…

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Apropos to some of what I’ve been on about lately with regard to bureaucracy and the like, there’s an absolutely excellent long piece in the LRB by James Meek about mail privatisation in the Netherlands and here… Love this sort of piece that moves dexterously from the situation on the ground, the structures that make it what it is, and the history of the whole deal…

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April 22, 2011 at 11:51 am

the psychosomaticity of crisis

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From an FT article yesterday about the probability that European states are about to sell-off what’s left of their publically-owned companies in order to plug budget gaps:

“The original catalyst for privatisations in the 1980s and 1990s was ideological, but the current motivation will be far more financially-driven,” says Craig Coben, head of equity capital markets in Europe for Bank of America Merrill Lynch. “Governments don’t quite have the crown jewels they had before but they are going to be looking to take advantage of market opportunities.”

Of course, both episodes are ideologically-driven, and of course there was a “financial” issue at play the first time around too, but then again we know what Coben means. The first round of privatizations happened because it was the right thing to do, this time because, ostensibly, there’s nothing else to do, which may have as much to do with the volume and viability of other possible answers in the two cases, but again, we know what he means.

But there’s something counter-intuitive about the progression, isn’t there? A drive that starts in ideological realm, the realm of argument and fantasy, that procedes to materialize itself, to come true. That is to say, there’s something psychosomatic, something of the imagined-become-real symptom about the long progression of this crisis. You worry so much about having a heart attack, you get so anxious about assembling your collection of cures both conventional and holistic, chemical and folk-borne, that there you are, dead in the parking lot of your Recently Privatized Medical Facility.

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March 14, 2010 at 9:42 am

our enclosures and theirs

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From the front page of Saturday’s Guardian:

James Murdoch repeated his call for the BBC to be reined in today, saying that the corporation should have its licence fee funding reduced by government so that it becomes “much, much smaller”.

In a question and answer session at the MediaGuardian Edinburgh International Television Festival following last night’s MacTaggart lecture, the chairman and chief executive of News Corporation in Europe and Asia suggested the licence fee should be reduced significantly.

“If you simply constrained the expenses – with plenty of advance warning – the next [licence fee] settlement or something like that – [you say] the number is ‘X’. We have got a huge debt pile in this country. We have financial issues. I think the BBC would prioritise pretty fast,” Murdoch said.

He added that the corporation’s 24-hour news channels and website were inhibiting the ability of commercial competitors to invest in news. “The news operation is creating enormous problems for the independent news business and it has to be dealt with,” he said.

“The BBC should not be in the business of competing with professional journalists. The consequences [for] independent journalists is probably the most urgent one to deal with.”

So the point would seem to be that any public provisioning of goods or services, whether efficient or not, crowd pleasing or not, must be considered first and foremosts as an enclosure of a space where profit could have been and should be harvested. I have a feeling we’re going to be seeing quite a lot of this argument in the next few years – we already are, both here with the BBC and in the US with health care reform. The problem is that according to the rules of the game as currently constituted – in the political structures and ideological atmospherics of our time – Murdoch and the like have their point. If GDP is the only metric that matters, of course they are right.

Perhaps nothing illustrates so clearly the inefficient efficiency and aggregate brutality of markets as a means to distibute things we need than the fact that if there’s something we can with relative ease give out for free we, following our logic, allow someone, set up a tollbooth, and charge a premium for access to it. Just because it’s better for someone to turn a profit than for no one to turn one.

What’s left? Those public sidewalks (called pavement here, which is something different, though similar, at home). Why should everyone happily walk around on those nicely paved paths, all for nothing, when they represent a massive opportunity to grow profit. Why not distribute contracts for corporations to build very fine wooden boardwalks, one inch above the public ground, complete with coin operated turnstiles at the begininng of every block? Perhaps just a micropayment, a penny per go.

Not only would it be a tremendous boost to the economy, but these boardwalks would foster the efficient delivery of sidewalk access, as those who didn’t really really need to go for a walk would stay off the public thoroghfares, especially during peak hours, when we might well charge more.

And once we had the boardwalks-over-sidewalks system running, I’m sure we would find lots of other opportunities for this sort of economy boosting operation. There are the obvious candidates of course – socialized systems of medical care, public or even private not-for-profit education provision (Princeton University as an infringement of the right of the University of Phoenix to operate a high-end profit-based university in central New Jersey), public libraries (could save a flagging Blockbuster Co.), police and fire protection, etc.

Perhaps when all of this was done, we could move on to the truly large untapped markets, such as that which would be generated by enclosing our living spaces in impermeable plastic bubbles, from which the air is systematically withdrawn and then reintroduced. Perhaps some state subsidy would be available for the poor, but there’s no reason that most of us should be simply breathing when we could be boosting GDP by paying for breathing rights, paying for breath on our debit cards or by bank direct deposit.

At any rate, they’re right – even the mildest, most customer friendly forms of socialism are inimicable to the efficient operation of markets. This is because public goods, in the end, tend to win. Can’t have people voting with their eyes, feet, minds, and bodies when we could have them voting with their wallets.

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August 31, 2009 at 8:16 am

if you see sid, ask him if he wants to buy the postal system too

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The front two pages of The Observer’s Business section Sunday featured one story after another dealing with the dysfunction and failure of privatized industries in Britain. It’s become very clear that the privatization of public services – services that in many cases shouldn’t or even can’t turn a profit – only works, in so far as it works, during periods overflowing with finance capital looking for a home. Then again, just about anything can be made to work during a period like that one, but now that cash is in short supply, take a look at where we are:

The privatized British rail system is looking even more fucked than usual.

The corporation that wants to buy the Royal Mail is having second thoughts now that it appears it may be difficult to slash the workforce.

The Blairite Private-Finance-Initiatives are starting to require, predictably, massive infusions of public investment.

BT (which hasn’t been publically owned since 1984) wants cut 10,000 jobs.

Perhaps as a minimal claim, right now, we might start demanding that industries that never had any business being privatized – in fact, simply couldn’t be effectively privatized and remain both solvent and accessable – might be returned to their natural states. And further, we might ask that our leftish public intellectuals stop mooning about as if they don’t understand the way the game works.

We could start with Paul Krugman. I can’t for a second understand his (guarded) optimism about the following:

Six major industry players — including America’s Health Insurance Plans (AHIP), a descendant of the lobbying group that spawned Harry and Louise — have sent a letter to President Obama sketching out a plan to control health care costs. What’s more, the letter implicitly endorses much of what administration officials have been saying about health economics.

Are there reasons to be suspicious about this gift? You bet — and I’ll get to that in a bit. But first things first: on the face of it, this is tremendously good news.

The signatories of the letter say that they’re developing proposals to help the administration achieve its goal of shaving 1.5 percentage points off the growth rate of health care spending. That may not sound like much, but it’s actually huge: achieving that goal would save $2 trillion over the next decade.

How are costs to be contained? There are few details, but the industry has clearly been reading Peter Orszag, the budget director.

In his previous job, as the director of the Congressional Budget Office, Mr. Orszag argued that America spends far too much on some types of health care with little or no medical benefit, even as it spends too little on other types of care, like prevention and treatment of chronic conditions. Putting these together, he concluded that “substantial opportunities exist to reduce costs without harming health over all.”

Sure enough, the health industry letter talks of “reducing over-use and under-use of health care by aligning quality and efficiency incentives.” It also picks up a related favorite Orszag theme, calling for “adherence to evidence-based best practices and therapies.” All in all, it’s just what the doctor, er, budget director ordered.

So let’s see. A lobbying / PR organization that represents the health insurance companies circulates a communique saying that they’re on board with the idea of slashing health care costs by rationing access to “some types of health care with little or no medical benefit”, hmmm… After all, you know what Keynes said about this, about what happens in the long run…. Why, exactly, does this excite Krugman? He should read this thing that I know I’ve posted before, from Heart of Darkness. It’s a bit misogynistic – you have to take my word that the misogyny doubles back on Marlow by the end of the book….

“One thing more remained to do — say good-bye to my excellent aunt. I found her triumphant. I had a cup of tea — the last decent cup of tea for many days — and in a room that most soothingly looked just as you would expect a lady’s drawing-room to look, we had a long quiet chat by the fireside. In the course of these confidences it became quite plain to me I had been represented to the wife of the high dignitary, and goodness knows to how many more people besides, as an exceptional and gifted creature — a piece of good fortune for the Company — a man you don’t get hold of every day. Good heavens! and I was going to take charge of a two-penny-half-penny river-steamboat with a penny whistle attached! It appeared, however, I was also one of the Workers, with a capital — you know. Something like an emissary of light, something like a lower sort of apostle. There had been a lot of such rot let loose in print and talk just about that time, and the excellent woman, living right in the rush of all that humbug, got carried off her feet. She talked about ‘weaning those ignorant millions from their horrid ways,’ till, upon my word, she made me quite uncomfortable. I ventured to hint that the Company was run for profit.

“‘You forget, dear Charlie, that the labourer is worthy of his hire,’ she said, brightly. It’s queer how out of touch with truth women are. They live in a world of their own, and there has never been anything like it, and never can be. It is too beautiful altogether, and if they were to set it up it would go to pieces before the first sunset. Some confounded fact we men have been living contentedly with ever since the day of creation would start up and knock the whole thing over.

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May 12, 2009 at 10:36 am

angry / american

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People keep telling me they like my angry posts. Of course it’s dawned on me that they might be telling me this to keep me from being angry at them. Or even writing an angry post about them. Or perhaps they simply pity me, bathed as I am in pathetic anger, or maybe they all get together sometimes to laugh at what a bad blogger am I.

Did I mention I’m back in the States. That should be explanation enough, I think. Angryish notes on my travels so far:

Strange to learn today that there are currently no privatized airports in the US. Stewart International in the Hudson Valley was privatized only to be returned to the Port Authority of NY/NJ, and it looks like Midway in Chicago will go private very soon. This is especially interesting to learn once you’ve spent some time living in the UK, where basically they’ve all been privatized, and redesigned to suit their new purpose, profit-generation. I probably should do this in an independent post, but Heathrow’s terminal 4 (which I flew out of) is perfect materialization of the microtortures of everyday life in an evermore privatized world. Long story short: I think we’re all becoming fairly familiar with these terminals that are basically just shopping malls with little doors hidden amongst the shitty shops where at some point, swooning from all your duty-free deals, you stumble onto your plane. That’s no surprise. It’s no surprise, the whole elimination of seating so that passenger-consumers are basically forced to wander around buying things rather than oh-so-unproductively sitting and waiting for their flight.

But Heathrow’s terminal 4, in a subtle way, exposes just how far we’ve gone, and gives a experiental sample of where things are headed. There are a few seats scattered around the terminal. A rough estimate suggests that there are enough seats to accomodate maybe one-twentieth of the total passenger load on a moderately busy day. But what is a bit surprising, even mildly shocking, is a cynical step that the designers have taken that rubs in just how bad things have gotten. In short: there are a few seats, and there are a few screens where you can see what gate you’re supposed to use when they finally, as late as possible, let you know where your plane will be boarding. (In most cases, from what I can tell, they know which gate it will be long before it’s called – these are long-haul flights, the airlines seem to rent the spots. Continental to Newark probably always uses the same gate, etc etc etc). The cynical, disgusting step that they’ve taken is that under no circumstances, in no instance, are the departure boards visible from a single seat anywhere in the terminal. I know this is true because I was bored and had an hour to kill so I checked. You can sit, but if you sit, you’ll eventually have to get up. And probably more than once. It would be very easy in many cases to position the screens so that the passengers can see them from where they’re sitting. The planners have deliberately made this impossible. Even if you’re lucky enough to find a chair, you will soon enough have to give it up to check. You will then lose your seat, and thus be forced to wander the mall again until your gate is called.

This, to me, is an emblem of just what life is like, and promises to be ever more like, as finance capital swallows the last bits of the public and the useful. Life will continue to move from capital’s provisioning of a wonderful set of opportunities toward a stunstick on your ass, keeping you moving as you negotiate the space that once was collectively yours.

On the other hand, it’s impossible to describe how dense my feelings are for Newark airport. It’d be soppy to go into just why, but they are. I haven’t been there in years, but was there the other day. And one of the most interesting things about having a consistent, long-term relationship with an airport is that a lot of the history of the place where you’ve lived is fossilized there. I remember when you could park right up at the door of the bottom level, and then, during the early eighties, when they started to push the cars back out from under the airport and road ramps for fear of truck bombs a la Beirut. The security infrastructure, the gate access or lack thereof, the slow then fast dissolve of smoking areas from everywhere to just the bars to nowhere at all… The flapping Budweiser eagle in the parking lot, now on its way to being owned by ImBev, much to the chagrin of the locals…

I could go on and on about EWR, and perhaps will on my way back…

We have lunch everyday at a place by the beach which is entirely stocked with people just like us, well sorta like us anyway: youngish couples with kids visiting parents and in-laws. All the women look exactly the same. My wife and I were talking about it and, elitist twat that I am, I tried to do it in pigFrench so that we will not be understood by the targets of our bile. Elles sont minces, avont les seins tres petits, et les visages pinchees, angulair, carees, et autres choses comme ca qu’on regarde dans les WASPs… That sort of thing.  A minute later, I realized that the thin, breast-less, angular faced waspy-looking woman sitting next to us was in fact French. Ah, c’est la vie, right class comrades? All in gest, and it’s inevitable that your mari amarican is a trader of some sort, so I’m sure you’ll have the last laff on us.

Of course the men all look the same too, but even less interestingly so…

Starbucks at the nearby Barnes and Noble isn’t, um, the same as the one on Tottenham Court Road where (as I keep saying) you can find me from 3-5 PM each day tapping away. I’m sure the employees are mistreated and generally exploited at both, but the fucking boss here is breaking in two new employees during my daily thirdspace break. She criticizes every single move they make, and does so while looking at the customers with a “what are you gonna do with these fucking semi-legals, eh? Hard to find good help, even during the recession.” I want to lean into them and call their boss a bitch in spanish, but I don’t have the words. It’s puta, right? Es una puta grande. If you reply with the right phrase (please, no fucking around and giving me like some sort of noxious pickup line – I will def google translate before I try) I’ll give it a shot.

I went to get a new drivers’ license yesterday (and in doing so officially “homesteaded” in Florida… huh?) You should get one while you’re here, wherever you’re visiting from. $25.25 and no questions asked. Only one thing. If you go to the one I do, when it comes time for them to take your money, the woman behind the desk may bizarrely adopt a blackface patois and ask for twenay faaave dollah n’ twenay faave cent. (Hard to understand if you’re not American, but trust me – this was pure Eddie Murphyism she was schticking, not southern belletism. At home, just folks, other shit comes after it – trust me.) It may not help to admit that you’re a democrat (sorta, of course) when she’s filling out your voter registration card. You’ll know you’re at the right counter when you see the placard on her desk that reads Calling an illegal immigrant an undocumented worker is like calling a drug-dealer an unlicensed pharmcist.

I’m not enjoying the DNC on TV. Step away from the superbowlic reversion of everything to Charles Barkleyite profundity for a few months and it all just seems so, you know, unwatchable. But my wife and I both agreed and disagreed about Hillary’s speech last night. I won’t go into the disagreement, but we agree she did tilt a bit left, didn’t she? The promotion of unionism? That’s not a phrase I’ve heard lately from the mouths of the dems or anyone. Just for now: interesting that the tilt to the left can function as an in-your-face parting shot, stirring up discontent in the party faithful, but can’t be allowed to be mobilized during, you know, an actual campaign, where it’s all home invasions at 6 AM and Iran nuking bluster. It’s like a parting shot after a breakup, when you pull out the impossibly good material you’ve not been saying all along, stuff that might not even be true, but now, just as it ends, you fire for effect and it stings.

Anyway, off to gotham tomorrow for a long-stretch and all by my lonesome, lucky dog that I am. (Payback for missing the first half of the trip taking care of a cat with a UTI. Yeah…) I’m generally more reverent than angry about NYC when I’m actually there, but I’ll try to scare up some shit from the Southerners at the bar at the (goddamm) Sheraton Midtown for you.

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August 28, 2008 at 7:00 pm

but not a drop to drink

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From the NYT Book Review this weekend:

That comes, unexpectedly, as Royte stands at the edge of the Ashokan
Reservoir in upstate New York. “Ignoring the bluish mountains that form
its backdrop and the phalanx of security guards in our foreground,” she
gazes “down onto the spillway which curves and drops like a wedding
cake, in four tiers, before sending its excess through a granite
passage,” supplying 1.2 billion gallons a day through 300 miles of
tunnels and aqueducts and 6,200 miles of distribution mains. There once
was grandeur in public works, and Royte captures the mythic heroism
that inspired the politicians and engineers to build great reservoirs
more than a century ago. Their outsize civic largesse makes our current
culture of single-serving bottles feel decidedly crummy. But returning
to public water’s golden age, if it’s possible, will not come cheap.
Royte says the country needs to invest $390 billion in our failing
water infrastructure by 2020.

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June 17, 2008 at 11:56 am