Why the Rich Love Burning Man

Burning Man became a festival that rich libertarians love because it never had a radical critique at its core.

burning-man

In principle the annual Burning Man festival sounds a bit like a socialist utopia: bring thousands of people to an empty desert to create an alternative society. Ban money and advertisements and make it a gift economy. Encourage members to bring the necessary ingredients of this new world with them, according to their ability.

Introduce “radical inclusion,” “radical self-expression,” and “decommodification” as tenets, and designate the alternative society as a free space, where sex and gender boundaries are fluid and meant to be transgressed.

These ideas — the essence of Burning Man — are certainly appealing.

Yet capitalists also unironically love Burning Man, and to anyone who has followed the recent history of Burning Man, the idea that it is at all anticapitalist seems absurd: last year, a venture capitalist billionaire threw a $16,500-per-head party at the festival, his camp a hyper-exclusive affair replete with wristbands and models flown in to keep the guests company.

Burning Man is earning a reputation as a “networking event” among Silicon Valley techies, and tech magazines now send reporters to cover it. CEOs like Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook and Larry Page of Alphabet are foaming fans, along with conservative anti-tax icon Grover Norquist and many writers of the libertarian (and Koch-funded) Reason magazine. Tesla CEO Elon Musk even went so far as to claim that Burning Man “is Silicon Valley.”

Radical Self-Expression

The weeklong Burning Man festival takes place once a year over Labor Day weekend in a remote alkali flat in northwestern Nevada. Two hours north of Reno, the inhospitable Black Rock Desert seems a poor place to create a temporary sixty-thousand-person city — and yet that’s entirely the point. On the desert playa, an alien world is created and then dismantled within the span of a month. The festival culminates with the deliberate burning of a symbolic effigy, the titular “man,” a wooden sculpture around a hundred feet tall.

Burning Man grew from unpretentious origins: a group of artists and hippies came together to burn an effigy at Baker Beach in San Francisco, and in 1990 set out to have the same festival in a place where the cops wouldn’t hassle them about unlicensed pyrotechnics. The search led them to the Black Rock Desert.

Burning Man is very much a descendent of the counterculture San Francisco of yesteryear, and possesses the same sort of libertine, nudity-positive spirit. Some of the early organizers of the festival professed particular admiration for the Situationists, the group of French leftists whose manifestos and graffitied slogans like “Never Work” became icons of the May 1968 upsurge in France.

Though the Situationists were always a bit ideologically opaque, one of their core beliefs was that cities had become oppressive slabs of consumption and labor, and needed to be reimagined as places of play and revolt. Hence, much of their art involved cutting up and reassembling maps, and consuming intoxicants while wandering about in Paris.

You can feel traces of the Situationists when walking through Black Rock City, Burning Man’s ephemeral village. Though Black Rock City resembles a city in some sense, with a circular dirt street grid oriented around the “man” sculpture, in another sense it is completely surreal: people walk half-naked in furs and glitter, art cars shaped like ships or dragons pump house music as they purr down the street.

Like a real city, Burning Man has bars, restaurants, clubs, and theaters, but they are all brought by participants because everyone is required to “bring something”:

The people who attend Burning Man are no mere “attendees,” but rather active participants in every sense of the word: they create the city, the interaction, the art, the performance and ultimately the “experience.” Participation is at the very core of Burning Man.

Participation sounds egalitarian, but it leads to some interesting contradictions. The most elaborate camps and spectacles tend to be brought by the rich because they have the time, the money, or both, to do so. Wealthier attendees often pay laborers to build and plan their own massive (and often exclusive) camps. If you scan San Francisco’s Craigslist in the month of August, you’ll start to see ads for part-time service labor gigs to plump the metaphorical pillows of wealthy Burners.

The rich also hire sherpas to guide them around the festival and wait on them at the camp. Some burners derogatorily refer to these rich person camps as “turnkey camps.

Silicon Valley’s adoration of Burning Man goes back a long way, and tech workers have always been fans of the festival. But it hasn’t always been the provenance of billionaires — in the early days, it was a free festival with a cluster of pitched tents, weird art, and explosives; but as the years went on, more exclusive, turnkey camps appeared and increased in step with the ticket price — which went from $35 in 1994 to $390 in 2015 (about sixteen times the rate of inflation).

Black Rock City has had its own FAA-licensed airport since 2000, and it’s been getting much busier. These days you can even get from San Carlos in Silicon Valley to the festival for $1500. In 2012, Mark Zuckerberg flew into Burning Man on a private helicopter, staying for just one day, to eat and serve artisanal grilled cheese sandwiches. From the New York Times:

“We used to have R.V.s and precooked meals,” said a man who attends Burning Man with a group of Silicon Valley entrepreneurs. (He asked not to be named so as not to jeopardize those relationships.) “Now, we have the craziest chefs in the world and people who build yurts for us that have beds and air-conditioning.” He added with a sense of amazement, “Yes, air-conditioning in the middle of the desert!”

The growing presence of the elite in Burning Man is not just noticed by outsiders — long-time attendees grumble that Burning Man has become “gentrified.” Commenting on the New York Times piece, burners express dismay at attendees who do no work. “Paying people to come and take care of you and build for you . . . and clean up after you . . . those people missed the point.”

Many Burners seethed after reading one woman’s first-person account of how she was exploited while working at the $17,000-per-head camp of venture capitalist Jim Tananbaum. In her account, she documented the many ways in which Tananbaum violated the principles of the festival, maintaining “VIP status” by making events and art cars private and flipping out on one of his hired artists.

Tananbaum’s workers were paid a flat $180 a day with no overtime, but the anonymous whistleblower attests that she and others worked fifteen- to twenty-hour days during the festival.

The emergent class divides of Burning Man attendees is borne out by data: the Burning Man census (yes, they have a census, just like a real nation-state) showed that from 2010 to 2014, the number of attendees who make more than $300,000 a year doubled from 1.4% to 2.7%. This number is especially significant given the outsize presence 1 percenters command at Burning Man.

In a just, democratic society, everyone has equal voice. At Burning Man everyone is invited to participate, but the people who have the most money decide what kind of society Burning Man will be — they commission artists of their choice and build to their own whims. They also determine how generous they are feeling, and whether to withhold money.

It might seem silly to quibble over the lack of democracy in the “governance” of Black Rock City. After all, why should we care whether Jeff Bezos has commissioned a giant metal unicorn or a giant metal pirate ship, or whether Tananbaum wants to spend $2 million on an air-conditioned camp? But the principles of these tech scions — that societies are created through charity, and that the true “world-builders” are the rich and privileged — don’t just play out in the Burning Man fantasy world. They carry over into the real world, often with less-than-positive results.

Remember when Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg decided to help “fix” Newark’s public schools? In 2010, Zuckerberg — perhaps hoping to improve his image after his callous depiction in biopic The Social Network donated $100 million to Newark’s education system to overhaul Newark schools.

The money was directed as a part of then–Newark Mayor Cory Booker’s plan to remake the city into the “charter school capital of the nation,” bypassing public oversight through partnership with private philanthropists.

Traditionally, public education has been interwoven with the democratic process: in a given school district, the community elects the school board every few years. School boards then make public decisions and deliberations. Zuckerberg’s donation, and the project it was attached to, directly undermined this democratic process by promoting an agenda to privatize public schools, destroy local unions, disempower teachers, and put the reins of public education into the hands of technocrats and profiteers.

This might seem like an unrelated tangent — after all, Burning Man is supposed to be a fun, liberating world all its own. But it isn’t. The top-down, do what you want, radically express yourself and fuck everyone else worldview is precisely why Burning Man is so appealing to the Silicon Valley technocratic scions.

To these young tech workers — mostly white, mostly men — who flock to the festival, Burning Man reinforces and fosters the idea that they can remake the world without anyone else’s input. It’s a rabid libertarian fantasy. It fluffs their egos and tells them that they have the power and right to make society for all of us, to determine how things should be.

This is the dark heart of Burning Man, the reason that high-powered capitalists — and especially capitalist libertarians — love Burning Man so much. It heralds their ideal world: one where vague notions of participation replace real democracy, and the only form of taxation is self-imposed charity. Recall Whole Foods CEO John Mackey’s op-ed, in the wake of the Obamacare announcement, in which he proposed a healthcare system reliant on “voluntary, tax-deductible donations.”

This is the dream of libertarians and the 1 percent, and it reifies itself at Burning Man — the lower caste of Burners who want to partake in the festival are dependent on the whims and fantasies of the wealthy to create Black Rock City.

Burning Man foreshadows a future social model that is particularly appealing to the wealthy: a libertarian oligarchy, where people of all classes and identities coexist, yet social welfare and the commons exist solely on a charitable basis.

Of course, the wealthy can afford more, both in lodging and in what they “bring” to the table: so at Burning Man, those with more money, who can bring more in terms of participation, labor and charity, are celebrated more.

It is a society that we find ourselves moving closer towards the other 358 (non–Burning Man) days of the year: with a decaying social welfare state, more and more public amenities exist only as the result of the hyper-wealthy donating them. But when the commons are donated by the wealthy, rather than guaranteed by membership in society, the democratic component of civic society is vastly diminished and placed in the hands of the elite few who gained their wealth by using their influence to cut taxes and gut the social welfare state in the first place.

It’s much like how in my former home of Pittsburgh, the library system is named for Andrew Carnegie, who donated a portion of the initial funds. But the donated money was not earned by Carnegie; it trickled up from his workers’ backs, many of them suffering from overwork and illness caused by his steel factories’ pollution. The real social cost of charitable giving is the forgotten labor that builds it and the destructive effects that flow from it.

At Burning Man the 1 percenters — who have earned their money in the same way that Carnegie did so long ago — show up with an army of service laborers, yet they take the credit for what they’ve “brought.”

Burning Man’s tagline and central principle is radical self-expression:

Radical self-expression arises from the unique gifts of the individual. No one other than the individual or a collaborating group can determine its content. It is offered as a gift to others. In this spirit, the giver should respect the rights and liberties of the recipient.

The root of Burning Man’s degeneration may lie in the concept itself. Indeed, the idea of radical self-expression is, at least under the constraints of capitalism, a right-wing, Randian ideal, and could easily be the core motto of any of the large social media companies in Silicon Valley, who profit from people investing unpaid labor into cultivating their digital representations.

It is in their interest that we are as self-interested as possible, since the more we obsess over our digital identity, the more personal information of ours they can mine and sell. Little wonder that the founders of these companies have found their home on the playa.

It doesn’t seem like Burning Man can ever be salvaged, or taken back from the rich power-brokers who’ve come to adore it and now populate its board of directors. It became a festival that rich libertarians love because it never had a radical critique at its core; and, without any semblance of democracy, it could easily be controlled by those with influence, power, and wealth.

Burning Man will be remembered more as the model for Google CEO Larry Page’s dream of a libertarian state, than as the revolutionary Situationist space that it could have been.

As such, it is a cautionary tale for radicals and utopianists. When “freedom” and “inclusion” are disconnected from democracy, they often lead to elitism and reinforcement of the status quo.

 

https://www.jacobinmag.com/2015/08/burning-man-one-percent-silicon-valley-tech/

How Colleges Train For Work, Not For Thought

Prof. Larry Wilkerson discusses the role universities play in prepping a work force rather than an intellectual force.

JARED BALL, PRODUCER, TRNN: Welcome, everyone, back to the Real News Network. I’m Jared Ball here in Baltimore.

While leading Democratic party politicians are now hawking new plans for a debt-free college experience, which of course sounds great to what are now the most indebted college graduates in world history, there are still some concerned about the kind of education even those not having to pay at all would receive. In a recent article for Harper’s magazine William Deresiewicz describes a situation where, as he says, colleges have sold their soul to the market.

To discuss this is Larry Wilkerson, former chief of staff to Colin Powell and a professor at the College of William and Mary. We welcome back Col. Wilkerson to the Real News. Welcome back.

LARRY WILKERSON, FMR. CHIEF OF STAFF TO COLIN POWELL: Thanks, Jared. Good to be with you.BALL: So tell us what you think about this article. It suggests that neoliberalism has taken hold, and the designs of the corporate world are all that most universities are being encouraged, at least, to be concerned about. What do you see is the problem here with this trend?

WILKERSON: This is an age-old problem, as you probably know. It goes way back in the life of universities, certainly argued majorly in or on campuses like Oxford University, Cambridge University in England, and other, older schools. It is typified by on the one side the humanists, the exponents of liberal arts, of teaching young men and young women how to think critically as opposed to skills enhancement and training, and those on the other side of the argument exemplified at that time by the Huxley brothers, scientists, by those who reflect what we’re talking about today when we say STEM, science, technology, engineering and so forth.

And what is increasingly becoming the case, and I think is the real object of the article in Harper’s and others who are talking about this in great detail today, and that is the predatory capitalist state, which is what we have become in addition to being a national security state. That predatory capitalist state wants, one, workers who are not going to question things. That is to say, they can’t think critically. And it wants people who are more or less inured to what they produce, do, and mean in daily existence. That is to say, they want workers who are compliant with the structure that we’ve created in this country, the structure that works for minimum wages, that does things that need to be done for the corporate good, and so forth.

It’s a meaner argument, if you will, today. I can give the Huxley brothers their due, as they argued for example with John Henry Cardinal Newman about whether a liberal arts education or a science-based education was the best. And like Plato and Aristotle I would probably argue that somewhere in between is probably the best kind of education. That is to say, you need scientists who can think critically too, and therefore be good voters and so forth, and you need humanists that know something, liberal arts people who know something about science, engineering, math, and so forth. That’s the ideal world.

What you do not need is colleges and universities that are focused on getting jobs for people, and getting jobs in a society that is increasingly plutocratic, that is to say, the only people with the really good jobs are at the very top, and everybody else is a worker bee for those people. That’s what these colleges and universities are tending towards now, and that’s what the advertisements, that’s what the brouhaha in U.S. News and World Report and other places like that is all about. Oh, you’re spending $200,000 for Jane’s education. Then Jane needs to get a job, and she doesn’t need an education. What she needs is training and skills enhancement. Well, that’s not the purpose of a university.

BALL: But this sounds like, to me at least, that this is an expansion, as you said, of a much longer existing problem. That is, that for many, that is for working whites, for poor working whites in this country and certainly for African-descended people and indigenous people, there has long been a history of teaching those communities only to be part of the workforce. That is, with Native American residential schools, with the industrial schools of the 19th century for African-Americans, for the establishment of a public school system in this country in general that was designed specifically to prepare white working people for their roles in society, that this has long been an issue.

So how is this discussion, other than upping it, so to speak, into the upper echelons of society, how is this a change in terms of the history of this country’s education, generally speaking?

WILKERSON: It’s not a change in the sense that you just expressed it, that it has all this complexity, all this nuance and all these different parts to it. For example, there is the part of minority education, the part of minorities being shorted for 400 years, still being shorted. I worked in the DC public school system, for example, for Colin Powell for ten years. It is for all intents and purposes I was segregated when I worked in it as it was in 1850, if it existed at that time. I mean this is no, nothing news to people who’ve worked in inner city schools, that minorities get short shrift when it comes to education.

But this is a bigger argument. It’s a huge argument at the very top of what you might call the sophistication of education argument. And it is first of all, should everyone get a university education, well, I for one, I’m talking about. The answer to that question is no. no matter how egalitarian you may be, everyone in the world does not need to be a philosopher, does not need to be a Ph.D in nuclear physics, and so forth. They don’t have the intellectual capacity, and frankly–and this is more important–they don’t have the inclination.

There are plenty of people that ought to run automotive repair shops, ought to be tradesmen and craftsmen and so forth. And we’ve sort of lost that in this culture today because what we are is a finance giant. We service people, we finance things. We don’t do any real making of anything anymore. But there is a niche, a huge niche in our society for artisans. For craftsmen. For people who by their own wishes don’t want what I’m talking about when I say a university education. And in many cases, aren’t intellectually equipped for it.

So that’s the first division you have to make, and you do have to make that division. We’ve been very [inaud.] by allowing the market to make that division, which is why we get so many idiots who are billionaires, and so many bright people who are not making any money at all. It’s a hypocritical stance in this country that we take on merit and education, and so forth.

But back to the argument, the university takes in people who are intellectually, mentally predisposed to and want to be critical thinkers. That’s not everybody in society. I daresay if a study were done, and it were done over time, you’d probably find 30-40 percent of any given society that really ought to have a university education of the type I’m talking about. Other types of education that mostly community colleges can offer, that are in fact sort of a combination of what I mean by education and what I mean by skills enhancement that are aimed at particular niches in society for example, computer training being the latest example of that on a broad base, ought to be done also. But this is a sort of combination of the university and the artisan segments of society.

The Germans do this really well. They have trade schools and they have universities. And they know everyone’s not going to university, by inclination or by capability. So they identify those people and send those people to university. Those who want trades and good jobs in trades, like working at Mercedes or BMW or whatever, they then send to trade school. Because they want to go to trade school, and because they have intellectual and other capacity to do that. This is the way education should be divided in this country. But hypocrites that we are, hypocrites that we’ve always been, we say everyone should have a $250,000 or more university education. That’s pure poppycock.

BALL: Larry Wilkerson, thanks again for joining us here at the Real News.

WILKERSON: Thanks for having me on, Jared.

BALL: And thank you for joining us here at the Real News. For everyone involved, again, I’m Jared Ball here in Baltimore. And as always, as Fred Hampton used to say, to you we say peace if you’re willing to fight for it. So peace everybody, and we’ll catch you in the whirlwind.

 

Jared A. Ball is the author of “I MiX What I Like: A MiXtape Manifesto” (AK Press, 2011) and co-editor of “A Lie of Reinvention: Correcting Manning Marable’s Malcolm X” (Black Classic Press, 2012). Ball is an associate professor of communication studies at Morgan State University in Baltimore, Maryland and can be found online at IMixWhatILike.org.

 

http://www.alternet.org/education/how-colleges-train-work-not-thought?akid=13408.265072.1tPeuq&rd=1&src=newsletter1041316&t=16

Puerto Rico: a US debt colony hounded by hedge funds

By Jerome Roos On August 21, 2015

Post image for Puerto Rico: a US debt colony hounded by hedge fundsWhy was Puerto Rico allowed to default while Greece was not? Just follow the money: the default was on the poor, while US hedge funds profit once more.

Photo by Alvin J. Báez

On August 1, Puerto Rico defaulted on part of its enormous $72 billion debt, paying back only $628,000 on a $58 million loan that was due at the start of the month. The default, which marks the most serious credit event in US state and municipal bond markets since the city of Detroit filed for bankruptcy in 2013, has led many to draw obvious comparisons to Greece – and understandably so.

Like Greece, Puerto Rico has been mired in a protracted recession that has seen unemployment rise, living standards fall and countless people leave their homeland in search of better life opportunities abroad. Like Greece, Puerto Rico is buckling under an unsustainable debt load that its leaders claim “cannot be paid.” And like Greece, Puerto Rico is effectively a ward of the larger union of which it is a part: Greece of the Eurozone and Puerto Rico of the United States.

But for all these obvious similarities, there is one puzzling difference: while Puerto Rico was allowed to default on its debts without drawing much ire – or interest – from the US government, Greece has not been able to do the same. Why was Puerto Rico allowed to default while Greece was not? The answer is simple: first follow the rules, then follow the money – and you will see.

When it comes to the rules, part of the answer surely lies in the peculiar institutional arrangement Puerto Rico finds itself in. As a commonwealth – or ade facto colony – of the United States, Puerto Rico and its public corporations can neither turn to the IMF for a bailout loan, as nominally “sovereign” nations like Greece and Portugal have done in recent years, nor file for Chapter 9 bankruptcy in the US, as state municipalities like Detroit and Stockton, CA. have.

The result is to leave the country in a sort of legal and financial limbo from which the only possible escape is either a bailout from the federal government or a unilateral suspension of payments on the debt. Since the former does not appear to be forthcoming (at least not for now), the latter has become all but inevitable. Experts widely believe further missed payments are still ahead.

When it comes to the money, however, we encounter the real reason why the US creditors have been so reluctant to intervene: because Puerto Rico basically just defaulted on its own people. The non-payment of August 1 was strictly limited to bonds held by the Public Finance Corporation, in which almost 900,000 poor and mostly rural Puerto Ricans – powerless pensioners and small savers – have invested their life savings through their local not-for-profit credit unions.

As one of them just toldThe New York Times, “they told me this was safe, that the legal protections were strong. They told me this was the best place to put my money, and I trusted them.”

But the bonds were not safe and those who sold them were not to be trusted. What most Puerto Rican savers and pensioners did not know was that their island’s awkward legal status under US law had allowed the big players on Wall Street to effectively turn their homeland into a casino. Because Puerto Rico’s government was in dire need of external financing, and because its public bonds are governed by a so-called “triple-exemption rule” that makes interest paid on them free of all city, state and federal taxes in the mainland United States, the banks saw a potential boom market.

As Eric Draitser wrote for teleSUR on the day before the default:

Barclays, Morgan Stanley, Goldman Sachs, JP Morgan, Bank of America-Merrill Lynch, and many others rushed to underwrite massive loans in the form of bond purchases in order to then turn around and sell those bonds to hedge funds and other investors in the US and around the world, thereby raking in tremendous profits on the underwriting fees. Essentially, Wall Street banks came in with enormous capital, then transferred the risk on to other speculators, while making handsome profits as middlemen.

Hedge fund managers clearly got drunk on the high yields, zero-taxes, steep discounts and strong constitutional protections that these Puerto Rican bonds offered. As late as 2014, Jeffrey Gundlach of DoubleLine Capital referred to investing in Puerto Rico as his “best idea,” while John Paulson – who gained notoriety for his speculative bets in Greece in recent years – even praised the economically moribund US debt colony as “the Singapore of the Caribbean.”

Now, what has largely gone unmentioned in the media since the default is that the Puerto Rican government did, on the same day, repay most of its nearly $500 million in other obligations to the big hedge funds and other institutional investors. The default, in other words, was a strategic decision by the Puerto Rican government – presumably undertaken under the pressure of the hedge funds themselves – to avoid losing access to future credit.

As a journalist for The Independent summarized the situation: “Some have called the $58 million default a calculated effort, as Puerto Rico paid ‘the big guys’ with the legal power to sue, while it shortchanged the low-risk creditors in its own backyard.” Or, as James Henry, an investment scholar at Columbia University, put it:

They have selectively defaulted. They are defaulting on publicly-traded stuff and trying to negotiate private agreements with hedge funds. Hedge funds have a lot of clout in governments and are likely going behind the scenes to help influence who gets paid back. If Puerto Rico ever wants to borrow again they have to pay back these guys. That’s the vulture approach.

Meanwhile, even though it cannot apply for an IMF bailout, the Puerto Rican government has already called in the help of three ex-IMF officials, including the Fund’s former deputy chief economist Anne Krueger, for advise on how to proceed. In a report published at the end of June, the three advisors called on the government to fire thousands of teachers, close schools, increase property taxes, suspend the minimum wage and slash the amount of paid holidays in half.

Perhaps, then, Puerto Rico’s default is not all that different from Greece’s non-default after all. Barely a month after Eurozone officials incorporated Greece as a de facto economic protectorate, US investors appear to be adamant to exact the same kind of discipline from their own long-standing debt colony. Default, it seems, is fine – as long as the bankers and the vultures are repaid.

Jerome Roos is a PhD researcher in International Political Economy at the European University Institute, and founding editor of ROAR Magazine. Follow him on Twitter at @JeromeRoos.

 

http://roarmag.org/2015/08/puerto-rico-default-hedge-funds/?utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=Feed%3A+roarmag+%28ROAR+Magazine%29

How Google Could Rig the 2016 Election

A picture taken on October 17, 2017 in Lille, shows a figue in front of the Google internet homepage.   AFP PHOTO / PHILIPPE HUGUEN        (Photo credit should read PHILIPPE HUGUEN/AFP/Getty Images)

(Photo credit should read PHILIPPE HUGUEN/AFP/Getty Images)

Google has the ability to drive millions of votes to a candidate with no one the wiser.

August 19, 2015

America’s next president could be eased into office not just by TV ads or speeches, but by Google’s secret decisions, and no one—except for me and perhaps a few other obscure researchers—would know how this was accomplished.

Research I have been directing in recent years suggests that Google, Inc., has amassed far more power to control elections—indeed, to control a wide variety of opinions and beliefs—than any company in history has ever had. Google’s search algorithm can easily shift the voting preferences of undecided voters by 20 percent or more—up to 80 percent in some demographic groups—with virtually no one knowing they are being manipulated, according to experiments I conducted recently with Ronald E. Robertson.

Given that many elections are won by small margins, this gives Google the power, right now, to flip upwards of 25 percent of the national elections worldwide. In the United States, half of our presidential elections have been won by margins under 7.6 percent, and the 2012 election was won by a margin of only 3.9 percent—well within Google’s control.

There are at least three very real scenarios whereby Google—perhaps even without its leaders’ knowledge—could shape or even decide the election next year. Whether or not Google executives see it this way, the employees who constantly adjust the search giant’s algorithms are manipulating people every minute of every day. The adjustments they make increasingly influence our thinking—including, it turns out, our voting preferences.

What we call in our research the Search Engine Manipulation Effect (SEME) turns out to be one of the largest behavioral effects ever discovered. Our comprehensive new study, just published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), includes the results of five experiments we conducted with more than 4,500 participants in two countries. Because SEME is virtually invisible as a form of social influence, because the effect is so large and because there are currently no specific regulations anywhere in the world that would prevent Google from using and abusing this technique, we believe SEME is a serious threat to the democratic system of government.

According to Google Trends, at this writing Donald Trump is currently trouncing all other candidates in search activity in 47 of 50 states. Could this activity push him higher in search rankings, and could higher rankings in turn bring him more support? Most definitely—depending, that is, on how Google employees choose to adjust numeric weightings in the search algorithm. Google acknowledges adjusting the algorithm 600 times a year, but the process is secret, so what effect Mr. Trump’s success will have on how he shows up in Google searches is presumably out of his hands.

***

Our new research leaves little doubt about whether Google has the ability to control voters. In laboratory and online experiments conducted in the United States, we were able to boost the proportion of people who favored any candidate by between 37 and 63 percent after just one search session. The impact of viewing biased rankings repeatedly over a period of weeks or months would undoubtedly be larger.

In our basic experiment, participants were randomly assigned to one of three groups in which search rankings favored either Candidate A, Candidate B or neither candidate. Participants were given brief descriptions of each candidate and then asked how much they liked and trusted each candidate and whom they would vote for. Then they were allowed up to 15 minutes to conduct online research on the candidates using a Google-like search engine we created called Kadoodle.

Each group had access to the same 30 search results—all real search results linking to real web pages from a past election. Only the ordering of the results differed in the three groups. People could click freely on any result or shift between any of five different results pages, just as one can on Google’s search engine.

When our participants were done searching, we asked them those questions again, and, voilà: On all measures, opinions shifted in the direction of the candidate who was favored in the rankings. Trust, liking and voting preferences all shifted predictably.

More alarmingly, we also demonstrated this shift with real voters during an actual electoral campaign—in an experiment conducted with more than 2,000 eligible, undecided voters throughout India during the 2014 Lok Sabha election there—the largest democratic election in history, with more than 800 million eligible voters and 480 million votes ultimately cast. Even here, with real voters who were highly familiar with the candidates and who were being bombarded with campaign rhetoric every day, we showed that search rankings could boost the proportion of people favoring any candidate by more than 20 percent—more than 60 percent in some demographic groups.

Given how powerful this effect is, it’s possible that Google decided the winner of the Indian election.  Google’s own daily data on election-related search activity (subsequently removed from the Internet, but not before my colleagues and I downloaded the pages) showed that Narendra Modi, the ultimate winner, outscored his rivals in search activity by more than 25 percent for sixty-one consecutive days before the final votes were cast. That high volume of search activity could easily have been generated by higher search rankings for Modi.

Google’s official comment on SEME research is always the same: “Providing relevant answers has been the cornerstone of Google’s approach to search from the very beginning. It would undermine the people’s trust in our results and company if we were to change course.”

Could any comment be more meaningless? How does providing “relevant answers” to election-related questions rule out the possibility of favoring one candidate over another in search rankings? Google’s statement seems far short of a blanket denial that it ever puts its finger on the scales.

There are three credible scenarios under which Google could easily be flipping elections worldwide as you read this:

First, there is the Western Union Scenario: Google’s executives decide which candidate is best for us—and for the company, of course—and they fiddle with search rankings accordingly. There is precedent in the United States for this kind of backroom king-making. Rutherford B. Hayes, the 19th president of the United States, was put into office in part because of strong support by Western Union. In the late 1800s, Western Union had a monopoly on communications in America, and just before the election of 1876, the company did its best to assure that only positive news stories about Hayes appeared in newspapers nationwide. It also shared all the telegrams sent by his opponent’s campaign staff with Hayes’s staff. Perhaps the most effective way to wield political influence in today’s high-tech world is to donate money to a candidate and then to use technology to make sure he or she wins. The technology guarantees the win, and the donation guarantees allegiance, which Google has certainly tapped in recent years with the Obama administration.

Given Google’s strong ties to Democrats, there is reason to suspect that if Google or its employees intervene to favor their candidates, it will be to adjust the search algorithm to favor Hillary Clinton. In 2012, Google and its top executives donated more than $800,000 to Obama but only $37,000 to Romney. At least six top tech officials in the Obama administration, including Megan Smith, the country’s chief technology officer, are former Google employees. According to a recent report by the Wall Street Journal, since Obama took office, Google representatives have visited the White House ten times as frequently as representatives from comparable companies—once a week, on average.

Hillary Clinton clearly has Google’s support and is well aware of Google’s value in elections. In April of this year, she hired a top Google executive, Stephanie Hannon, to serve as her chief technology officer. I don’t have any reason to suspect Hannon would use her old connections to aid her candidate, but the fact that she—or any other individual with sufficient clout at Google—has the power to decide elections threatens to undermine the legitimacy of our electoral system, particularly in close elections.

This is, in any case, the most implausible scenario. What company would risk the public outrage and corporate punishment that would follow from being caught manipulating an election?

Second, there is the Marius Milner Scenario: A rogue employee at Google who has sufficient password authority or hacking skills makes a few tweaks in the rankings (perhaps after receiving a text message from some old friend who now works on a campaign), and the deed is done. In 2010, when Google got caught sweeping up personal information from unprotected Wi-Fi networks in more than 30 countries using its Street View vehicles, the entire operation was blamed on one Google employee: software engineer Marius Milner. So they fired him, right? Nope. He’s still there, and on LinkedIn he currently identifies his profession as “hacker.” If, somehow, you have gotten the impression that at least a few of Google’s 37,000 employees are every bit as smart as Milner and possess a certain mischievousness—well, you are probably right, which is why the rogue employee scenario isn’t as far-fetched as it might seem.

And third—and this is the scariest possibility—there is the Algorithm Scenario: Under this scenario, all of Google’s employees are innocent little lambs, but the software is evil. Google’s search algorithm is pushing one candidate to the top of rankings because of what the company coyly dismisses as “organic” search activity by users; it’s harmless, you see, because it’s all natural. Under this scenario, a computer program is picking our elected officials.

To put this another way, our research suggests that no matter how innocent or disinterested Google’s employees may be, Google’s search algorithm, propelled by user activity, has been determining the outcomes of close elections worldwide for years, with increasing impact every year because of increasing Internet penetration.

SEME is powerful precisely because Google is so good at what it does; its search results are generally superb. Having learned that fact over time, we have come to trust those results to a high degree. We have also learned that higher rankings mean better material, which is why 50 percent of our clicks go to the first two items, with more than 90 percent of all clicks going to that precious first search page. Unfortunately, when it comes to elections, that extreme trust we have developed makes us vulnerable to manipulation.

In the final days of a campaign, fortunes are spent on media blitzes directed at a handful of counties where swing voters will determine the winners in the all-important swing states. What a waste of resources! The right person at Google could influence those key voters more than any stump speech could; there is no cheaper, more efficient or subtler way to turn swing voters than SEME. SEME also has one eerie advantage over billboards: when people are unaware of a source of influence, they believe they weren’t being influenced at all; they believe they made up their own minds.

Republicans, take note: A manipulation on Hillary Clinton’s behalf would be particularly easy for Google to carry out, because of all the demographic groups we have looked at so far, no group has been more vulnerable to SEME—in other words, so blindly trusting of search rankings—than moderate Republicans. In a national experiment we conducted in the United States, we were able to shift a whopping 80 percent of moderate Republicans in any direction we chose just by varying search rankings.

There are many ways to influence voters—more ways than ever these days, thanks to cable television, mobile devices and the Internet. Why be so afraid of Google’s search engine? If rankings are so influential, won’t all the candidates be using the latest SEO techniques to make sure they rank high?

SEO is competitive, as are billboards and TV commercials. No problem there. The problem is that for all practical purposes, there is just one search engine. More than 75 percent of online search in the United States is conducted on Google, and in most other countries that proportion is 90 percent. That means that if Google’s CEO, a rogue employee or even just the search algorithm itself favors one candidate, there is no way to counteract that influence. It would be as if Fox News were the only television channel in the country. As Internet penetration grows and more people get their information about candidates online, SEME will become an increasingly powerful form of influence, which means that the programmers and executives who control search engines will also become more powerful.

Worse still, our research shows that even when people do notice they are seeing biased search rankings, their voting preferences still shift in the desired directions—even more than the preferences of people who are oblivious to the bias. In our national study in the United States, 36 percent of people who were unaware of the rankings bias shifted toward the candidate we chose for them, but 45 percent of those who were aware of the bias also shifted. It’s as if the bias was serving as a form of social proof; the search engine clearly prefers one candidate, so that candidate must be the best. (Search results are supposed to be biased, after all; they’re supposed to show us what’s best, second best, and so on.)

Biased rankings are hard for individuals to detect, but what about regulators or election watchdogs? Unfortunately, SEME is easy to hide. The best way to wield this type of influence is to do what Google is becoming better at doing every day: send out customized search results. If search results favoring one candidate were sent only to vulnerable individuals, regulators and watchdogs would be especially hard pressed to find them.

For the record, by the way, our experiments meet the gold standards of research in the behavioral sciences: They are randomized (which means people are randomly assigned to different groups), controlled (which means they include groups in which interventions are either present or absent), counterbalanced (which means critical details, such as names, are presented to half the participants in one order and to half in the opposite order) and double-blind (which means that neither the subjects nor anyone who interacts with them has any idea what the hypotheses are or what groups people are assigned to). Our subject pools are diverse, matched as closely as possible to characteristics of a country’s electorate. Finally, our recent report in PNAS included four replications; in other words, we showed repeatedly—under different conditions and with different groups—that SEME is real.

Our newest research on SEME, conducted with nearly 4,000 people just before the national elections in the UK this past spring, is looking at ways we might be able to protect people from the manipulation. We found the monster; now we’re trying to figure out how to kill it. What we have learned so far is that the only way to protect people from biased search rankings is to break the trust Google has worked so hard to build. When we deliberately mix rankings up, or when we display various kinds of alerts that identify bias, we can suppress SEME to some extent.

It’s hard to imagine Google ever degrading its product and undermining its credibility in such ways, however. To protect the free and fair election, that might leave only one option, as unpalatable as it might seem: government regulation.

Read more: http://www.politico.com/magazine/story/2015/08/how-google-could-rig-the-2016-election-121548.html#ixzz3jU90hk3U

Global markets plunge amid signs of deepening slump

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By Andre Damon
21 August 2015

Global stocks plunged Thursday as fears of a world economic slowdown mixed with concerns over a destabilization of global exchange rates and mounting geopolitical tensions.

US stocks staged their sharpest one-day selloff since February 2014, hitting six-month lows and wiping out all their gains over the past year. Shares in emerging markets, meanwhile, fell for the fifth day in a row, hitting the lowest levels since 2011.

Markets in China led Thursday’s selloff, falling 3.18 percent. This brings total declines since June to 29 percent, despite an extraordinary series of cash injections by the Chinese central bank, which intensified following the country’s currency devaluation last week. The stock market drop has been accompanied by a sharp decline in economic growth.

The most immediate trigger for Thursday’s selloff appeared to be a gloomy assessment of the global economy by the US Federal Reserve in the minutes just released for its July 28-29 policy meeting.

In recent years, the ruling class had treated reduced growth predictions by the Fed as a positive sign, signaling further infusions of cash to prop up financial markets.

But Thursday’s negative response to the figures may point to fears that, after nine years without a rate increase by the US central bank, global central banks may be running out of ammunition to combat a crisis that is increasingly affecting every corner of the globe.

Markets in the rest of Asia, Europe and North America followed the Chinese markets downward. In the US, the Dow Jones Industrial Average fell more than 350 points, closing down by 2 percent. The S&P 500 fell by 2.1 percent, and the tech-heavy Nasdaq plunged by 2.8 percent after the release of negative technology sales figures on both sides of the Pacific.

A number of industries have now officially entered stock corrections. Bloomberg reported, “The Nasdaq Biotechnology Index…entered a correction, falling more than 10 percent from a record set a month ago. The Philadelphia Semiconductor Index slid into a bear market, plunging more than 20 percent from a June peak.”

The selloff was concentrated in the stocks that have risen most sharply this year, with Netflix Inc. falling 7.8 percent in a single day. One analyst told Bloomberg, “You’re finally starting to see the untouchable stocks—some of the biggest weighting of the market—get touched.”

In addition to the negative prognosis by the Federal Reserve, markets were responding to the persistent slump in commodities prices amid a continuing fall in global demand due to the world economic slowdown.

The underlying significance of the commodities selloff was noted by theFinancial Times, which pointed out, paraphrasing a securities analyst, that “at face value, the slide in commodity prices over the past year was consistent with a global recession as severe as that in 2008-09.”

The fall in commodities prices is transmitting the recessionary tendencies of the real global economy into financial markets. Reuters noted that the two-week correlation between the US stock market and oil prices is at the highest level in five months.

Prices for Brent Crude oil, a benchmark for international oil prices, fell 1.2 percent Thursday, hitting a 7-month low of $46.62. Despite staging a small recovery earlier in the day, US crude prices hit six-year lows. This puts them on track to fall as low as $30 per barrel by the fall, which would be the lowest price since the 2008-2009 financial crisis.

The global selloff in markets has been compounded by increasing turbulence in global exchange rates following last week’s surprise devaluation of the Chinese yuan. Kazakhstan’s tenge fell by more than 20 percent after the country announced that it would stop defending its currency peg and allow the currency to float freely, following a similar move by Vietnam. The national currencies of Turkey, Russia and Colombia also saw sharp declines.

Worries over these currency devaluations were accompanied by growing fears over the destabilizing effects of a series of intensifying geopolitical conflicts, including recent military flare-ups between Russia and Ukraine, Turkey and Kurdish militias, North and South Korea, as well as India and Pakistan.

In the eight years since the US Fed began cutting its federal funds rate, the global economy has been characterized by a tug-of-war between extraordinarily accommodative monetary policies by US, Asian, and European central banks on one hand, and the persistently moribund state of the real economy.

Since the eruption of the 2008 crisis, every indicator of a global downturn was met by an overwhelming infusion of cash from global central banks. This process has succeeded in producing an enormous increase in social inequality, along with a massive speculative financial bubble that has grown increasingly divorced from real economic activity.

The measures taken by the central banks have been dictated by the interests of the financial aristocracy, and have been accompanied by unrelenting austerity and attacks on wages and working conditions.

But there are increasing indicators that the ability of world central banks to contain the swelling economic crisis has broken down. As one analyst at Société Générale told the Financial Times, “The threat of Fed tightening may be perceived to have diminished but the threat from weaker Chinese growth and falling global commodity prices isn’t going away any time soon.” The latter tendencies certainly predominated in Thursday’s selloff.

At the beginning of the year, the WSWS noted that “the contradictions of the capitalist system” are increasingly “acquiring an acute character. The ‘peaceful’ intervals between the eruption of major crises—geopolitical, economic and social—have become so short that they can hardly be described as intervals. Crises, on the other hand, appear not as isolated ‘episodes,’ but as more or less permanent features of contemporary reality.”

This prognosis is increasingly being borne out as the global economic slump, the destabilization of international currency markets, and growing geopolitical conflicts are combining into a generalized crisis to which the world’s ruling classes can offer no solution.

 

http://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2015/08/21/econ-a21.html

Payment for services rendered: Obama prepares to cash in on presidency

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By Patrick Martin
19 August 2015

An article in the Monday edition of the New York Times, headlined “With High-Profile Help, Obama Plots Life After Presidency,” describes the ongoing discussions between the US president and groups of supporters and cronies about plans for Obama after he leaves the White House on January 20, 2017.

These discussion are “part of a methodical effort taking place inside and outside the White House as the president, first lady and a cadre of top aides map out a postpresidential infrastructure and endowment they estimate could cost as much as $1 billion,” the Times reports.

This figure was chosen after a review of the experiences of Obama’s immediate predecessors. Bill Clinton, according to this account, made the “mistake” of raising too little money initially for his presidential library in Little Rock, Arkansas, forcing him to make repeated fundraising appeals in subsequent years.

George W. Bush raised $500 million for his library, an ample sum, but “Obama’s associates set a goal of raising at least $800 million — enough money, they say, to avoid never-ending fund-raising. One top adviser said that $800 million was a floor rather than a ceiling.”

And that is only the funding for the library, to say nothing of the forthcoming Obama Global Foundation, apparently modeled on the vast and lucrative enterprise set up by Bill and Hillary Clinton, which has raised billions over the past 15 years.

It is therefore no surprise that, according to the Times, “The heart of the postpresidential planning is Mr. Obama’s own outreach to eclectic, often extraordinarily rich groups of people.”

Those named as consultants and likely future funders of Obama’s post-presidency consist mainly of billionaires and near-billionaires from Wall Street, Silicon Valley and Hollywood. The background and careers of these individuals give a glimpse of the social layer on which the Obama presidency rests:

Marc Lasry: hedge fund CEO, worth $1.7 billion. After getting his law degree, Lasry clerked for a bankruptcy court judge and developed expertise in how to exploit profit opportunities in the purchase and sale of distressed debt and other securities linked to bankrupt or failing companies. He founded the Avenue Capital Group hedge fund, which now has $11 billion under management. In 2014, Lasry made the Forbes list of top hedge fund bosses, making $280 million in income.

Reid Hoffman: Silicon Valley CEO, worth $4.8 billion. After joining Apple Computer in the 1990s, Hoffman worked on social network development, before cofounding PayPal, the payment transmission service, which made him a multimillionaire. After PayPal was acquired by eBay, he went on to found LinkedIn, the business and employee networking service, which made him a billionaire several times over. He coauthored a management volume last year that argued that previous business models were outdated and that workers should be recruited for “tours of duty” rather than long-term employment.

John Doerr: Silicon Valley venture capitalist, worth $3.3 billion. After working as a salesman at Intel, the largest maker of computer chips, Doerr joined the venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, which raked in billions from investments in Google, Amazon.com, Sun Microsystems, Symantec, Twitter and other IT firms. A longtime Democratic Party fundraiser, he was appointed by Obama to the USA Economic Recovery Advisory Board.

Mark T. Gallogly: hedge fund CEO, near-billionaire. After a long career at the Blackstone Group, the world’s largest private equity firm, Gallogly became a cofounder of Centerbridge Partners, a $20 billion hedge fund specializing in leveraged buyouts and distressed securities. Centerbridge directly profited from the Obama administration’s restructuring of the auto industry, acquiring GMAC Commercial Finance, one of the fragments spun off by General Motors Acceptance Corporation, the financial arm of the auto giant.

James H. Simons: retired hedge fund CEO, worth $14 billion. The wealthiest of Obama’s business backers, Simons founded Renaissance Technologies, which pioneered the use of mathematical methods in financial market manipulation. According to his Wikipedia entry, Simons personally earned $1.5 billion in 2005, $1.7 billion in 2006 and $2.8 billion in 2007—about $6 billion in total during the three years leading up to the 2008 Wall Street Crash. During 2008 he made another $2.5 billion in income.

Why should these “extraordinarily rich groups of people” respond to “outreach” from Obama? The Times is too delicate to ask, let alone answer, this question. Perhaps it has something to do with the policies of the Obama administration, which have been based from the very beginning on promoting the fortunes of the billionaires, regardless of the impact on the rest of American society.

This was no accident. As the Times reported, “several aides close to Mr. Obama said his extended conversations over the lengthy dinners…reminded them of the private consultations Mr. Obama had with donors and business leaders as he sought to build a winning campaign.” In other words, Obama was groomed by the super-rich—as well as by the military-intelligence apparatus—before he was installed in the White House to do their bidding.

Obama made his promises, and then delivered on them. The 2008-2009 bailout of Wall Street, initiated by the Bush administration with Obama’s approval, and enormously expanded once the Democrat entered the White House, played the decisive role in safeguarding the wealth and income of the super-rich. Add to that the bailout of the auto industry, which made billions for key investors while autoworkers saw their pensions, health care and pay levels decimated.

In every significance sphere of activity, from the assault on public education to the arming of local police with military weaponry, from the kid-glove treatment of Wall Street in the Dodd-Frank law to corporate-controlled trade deals like TPP, from the buildup of a surveillance state at home to the waging of war after war overseas, it is the class interests of the financial aristocracy that drive the Obama administration.

There is no mystery why the billionaires are now flocking to assist Obama in his post-presidential career. It is payment for services rendered.

http://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2015/08/19/obam-a19.html

 

The network is hostile

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Following this weekend’s news that AT&T was as friendly with the NSA as we’ve suspected all along, cryptographer Matthew Green takes a step back to look at the broad lessons we’ve learned from the NSA leaks. He puts it simply: the network is hostile — and we really understand that now. “My take from the NSA revelations is that even though this point was ‘obvious’ and well-known, we’ve always felt it more intellectually than in our hearts. Even knowing the worst was possible, we still chose to believe that direct peering connections and leased lines from reputable providers like AT&T would make us safe. If nothing else, the NSA leaks have convincingly refuted this assumption.” Green also points out that the limitations on law enforcement’s data collection are technical in nature — their appetite for surveillance would be even larger if they had the means to manage it. “…it’s significant that someday a large portion of the world’s traffic will flow through networks controlled by governments that are, at least to some extent, hostile to the core values of Western democracies.”