Hello and happy Valentine’s Day. It’s Luke from Welcome to Hell World and I am feeling very seen by the corporations who were busy selling my own nostalgia back to me last night during the Super Bowl. Today I wrote about the film Open Water which has haunted me for almost twenty years now. If you haven’t seen it maybe do not.
“All that’s left is for the two of them to continue living born along on the waves for as long as they can not knowing which of them is going to die first…It made me think just now about how nearly a million Americans have died over the past two years from the pandemic. Their loved ones sitting by helplessly watching and waiting for a different kind of drowning to begin.”
The other day I wrote about qualified immunity and the case of a Georgia man named David Powell. In 2016 Powell heard what he thought was a burglar outside his home. He got his gun and went to look. A cop lurking in the dark shot him dead without warning. An appeals court just upheld the decision to grant the cop immunity. There is a darkly comical ending to it all though if you read through to the end.
If you’d like to subscribe for a year to Hell World you’ll also get a free six months paid subscription to Forever Wars by Spencer Ackerman and Foreign Exchanges by Derek Davison.
Today I’m going to turn over the main feature to Ryan Cooper. Ryan is the managing editor of The Prospect and the co-host of the Left Anchor podcast. He also recently published a new book How Are You Going to Pay For That? Smart Answers to the Dumbest Question in Politics.
Like they're talking about the weather
by Ryan Cooper
America is currently in the midst of the highest surge of inflation in almost 40 years, and the business class is pissed. Not exactly about inflation per se, as profits have been ludicrously high in many sectors (thanks to boosted sales and massive margins), but supposedly about other things.
President of Goldman Sachs John Waldron recently attacked the Federal Reserve for doing something wrong. The last few years have brought "into question the independence of the Fed," he said recently, adding that he doubted it is still capable of being an "independent, monetary policy engine that is doing what it thinks is right and not what’s expedient." Meanwhile, Goldman's policy team is eagerly wishcasting seven interest rate hikes this year. Deutsche Bank's Jim Reid recently told Insider that January's hot inflation figure "raises the risk that a recession might be increasingly difficult to avoid."
Notice the way they frame this, like they're talking about the weather. It's a perfect example of the ideological nemesis in my book How Are You Going to Pay for That? — this notion of The Economy as a big machine that somehow basically runs itself. The job of the Fed is to be "independent" so they can soothe and stroke The Economy in a non-political fashion, lest it get out of hand and punish us all. Reid in particular is implying that the Fed will have no choice but to cause a recession to get inflation in line.
In reality, the economy is a social construct. It's created by politics, sustained by politics, and what happens within it is the product of political choices. When Waldron says the Fed isn't "independent," he means that it isn't doing what he wants. When Reid says that the Fed might not be able to "avoid" a recession, he means that's the response to inflation he wants personally. Rich people, and especially financiers, constantly hide their politics behind a facade of neutral technocratic wisdom, but such a pose is a priori impossible. There is no "correct" answer to inflation or any other economic question, there are only choices about who will benefit, and who will suffer.
You don't have to be a mind reader to know what Wall Street is really anxious about, whether they admit it to themselves or not: worker power. Thanks to the pandemic rescue packages, the job market has recovered astonishingly quickly compared to the post-2008 years. Where it took almost an entire decade for the number of jobs to match the number of unemployed people, the same feat was achieved after the pandemic crunch in just 13 months — and now labor is genuinely scarce for the first time in 20 years.
Wages are shooting up at the bottom, as businesses desperately compete for workers, people are quitting their jobs in unprecedented numbers, and Starbucks appears to be experiencing a brushfire unionization campaign. It's just possible that if the boom is sustained for several years, we might see a restoration in the collapsed labor share of national income, or even a rebound in America's pitiful union density (though one should not be too Panglossian in that regard, as we've been disappointed before).
A hot, booming economy is not good for Wall Street, the tech industry, or the top 1 percent. The plain fact is that the weak post-2008 recovery was fantastic for the rich: interest rates were low, profits were high, and because workers did not have the income to buy what they could produce, there was ungodly amounts of liquidity sloshing around. Most profits couldn't realistically be invested in new real businesses, because consumers did not have much disposable income, so instead they just went back into the stock market through buybacks and reinvested dividends, or they flowed into ridiculous schemes like Uber, which gained market share by ridiculously underpricing its taxi service — when people are broke, the only way to compete is by losing money!
The booming economy today, by contrast, sees investment surging to old-fashioned sectors like shipping, logistics, and manufacturing — essentially, back to good ol' selling goods and services for a profit in the marketplace. But that's no good for guys who make their money by essentially standing around with a bucket as huge waves of credit slosh back and forth from one madcap scheme to the next. So they are mounting a pressure campaign to convince the Fed to strangle the boom, beat the workers back into submission with high unemployment, and bring back the good times (for them).
The lesson for people who aren't wealthy financiers is that this current red-hot economy is not likely to last very long. Without serious sources of institutional power, above all large and disciplined trade unions, there will be little countervailing force to push back against Wall Street. Conditions today for organizing one's workforce have seldom been so good — it's worth thinking about how you might take advantage, if you can.
How Are You Going to Pay For That? Smart Answers to the Dumbest Question in Politics is available now.
Last week at The Flashpoint…
An Iowa mother objected to a proposed bill in the state legislature that would have put cameras in classrooms. Natalie Harwood, 31, wrote to the bill’s sponsor Rep. Norlin Mommsen on February 3, telling the lawmaker that his efforts would inspire backlash.
“You can try to intimidate school teachers. But there is nothing you can do to stop me making my own little communists at home and sending them to school with your kids!”
I updated readers on Joe Dumont, the Lincoln Park, Michigan man whose struggles exemplified the high cost of being poor.
The Michigan Unemployment Insurance Agency has pushed back their release of his 1099, delaying his tax return. He’s dealing with more health issues he can’t afford to get checked out. And his late mother’s house, which he can’t take ownership of due to the expense of probate court, may be getting sold in foreclosure.
“In the blink of an eye your entire world can turn upside down, and there's nothing that prepares you for that,” Dumont told me.
It was a foreign policy focused week on the podcast.
On Monday, I talked to AJ+’s Sana Saeed about the way Tucker Carlson is being portrayed as an “anti-war” voice. We were joined by Media Matters for America researcher Nikki McCann Ramirez and author Jonathan Katz.
Then, on Thursday, Empire Files journalist Abby Martin came on to talk about Joe Biden’s foreign policy in a time of war.
Thanks for reading! See you next week.
What is “web3”? Why are NFTs? What the fuck was up with all the crypto ads during the Super Bowl last night? If any of these questions have crossed your mind recently, you might appreciate The Read Max Report on web3, a 10,000-word extravaganza of explanation, analysis, reading material, and really ugly charts.
The report is available for subscribers only, but you can read a preview of it here. If you’ve been reading Read Max, I invite you to subscribe — producing the newsletter is a full time job and I wouldn’t be able to do it without reader support!
So what had happened was that I had planned to write about the CIA's still-extremely-unclear bulk collection of some aspect of Americans' data, but then my child care fell through. I'm typing this while the baby is napping. Were I still selling my labor to a news outlet, I would be instructed nevertheless to half-ass my way into filing something by 4pm, thereby ensuring that readers, my baby, my wife, my older child and myself would all be short-changed. Instead, look for me writing on this at FOREVER WARS… sometime this week? I hope?
Right, what did we do last week, a week I totally 100-percent remember happening. I dove back into a March 2007 embed I did in Baghdad (and Mosul, but I didn't revisit any of my dispatches from there) for some vignettes. The first one was about a certain kind of gamesmanship between occupier and collaborator involving porn. The second one – and you have to subscribe for this sort of debasement – was about the corkscrew landing pilots used to make into Baghdad to avoid being shot out of the sky, and how I am not built for that. This seems like a good place for a reminder that if you buy a year of FOREVER WARS you will also get a year, at the subscriber tier, of Derek's FOREIGN DISPATCHES and Luke's WELCOME TO HELL WORLD.
Jordan Uhl & Rob Rousseau
After the largest mass mobilization in modern American history around the killing of George Floyd in 2020 resulted in some meaningless, unintentionally hilarious Kente cloth photoshoots, more money going to police departments and not much else, things have come completely full circle with the brutal slaying of Amir Locke by the Minneapolis Police Department, while operating under a supposedly-banned no-knock warrant. This week we spoke to The Intercept’s Akela Lacy about the case, the Biden Administration’s complete inability to pass even the minor reforms they campaigned on, whether public officials have the power to reign in out of control police unions even if they wanted to, and how the prison-industrial complex has seen a massive and alarming uptick in inmate deaths during the Covid era.
Wars of Future Past
Kelsey D. Atherton
We are living in a robot-dogaissance. From Homeland Security press releases to regional beer ads, four legged machines are having a moment. Last week in this very spot, I talked about the Customs and Border Protection robot dogs, the Ghost Robotics Vision-60 Q-UGV machine tested in El Paso for an explicit mission of protecting CBP officers and hunting other people. If these robots were purely shown as military machines, it would be easy to quarantine them as tools of empire and their makers as just a more modern shade of Lockheed or Raytheon.
Except Boston Dynamics, the most prominent robot dog maker, insists on not just being known, but being loved. In pursuit of this popularity, Boston Dynamics partnered with craft beer giant Sam Adams to make an ad that is nominally about Hazy IPAs but is mostly about how the Spot robot dog is a good machine and not an accessory to police violence.
Dave Infante, of the excellent Fingers newsletter, spoke to me about this intersection of beer and robots, in a delightful conversation about brand synergy masking bad products. From Infante:
Which, like… the things look like hatchlings from Dr. Arliss Loveless’ spider tank from Wild Wild West, can you really blame them? “In Black Mirror, the robot dogs are scary because they hunt people, but in real life the robot dog is unsettling because it gives police and the military another way to do their normal functions, but with even less chance to see the people on the other side of the robot as human,” Atherton mused to Fingers in a recent direct-message conversation. To wit: every six months or so, a new, non-IPA-related report emerges of cops using Spot to help answer 911 calls or do community patrolling. These incidents freak people out because the bots are visually freaky, but also because their arrival in the breach between the human police and the flesh-and-blood citizens they nominally serve underscores how little empathy the former had for the latter to begin with.
Give it a read! And if you’d like more on the robot-dog beat, I ended January at Wars of Future Past by revisiting a 2015 story I wrote about funerals for robot dogs.
Just FYI, as far as I know none of this happened this weekend:
Ukraine continues to exist in a liminal state between a Russian invasion that could happen any second now, according to the Biden administration, the UK government, and many denizens of the DC Blob like Ms. Haring up there, or that might not happen at all. Last week the administration told us that The Intelligence suggests that evil genius Vladimir Putin has made up his mind to invade Ukraine before the end of the Olympics. Over the weekend The Intelligence settled on Wednesday as the day Putin has decided to begin. In fairness to The Intelligence, Putin has engaged in hostilities mid-Olympics in the past—see the Russo-Georgian War of 2008 and Russia’s unrecognized 2014 annexation of Crimea—so there would be some precedent for this still hypothetical scenario. But since The Intelligence isn’t being made public it’s hard to evaluate its veracity.
The US and UK governments have been quick to hype supposed Russian military plans, everything from the “false flag” attack that’s supposed to kick off the invasion to a plan to use Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) operatives to launch “coups” inside Ukraine’s major cities in coordination with the military offensive. Russia has brought plenty of fuel to the fire in the form of a military buildup around Ukraine that now has some 130,000 soldiers in position to invade, assuming that’s Moscow’s intention. But it’s also possible that the Russians are making a show of force and plan to stop short of war. As it happens there’s precedent for that too.
The argument from Washington and from London is that making these alleged plans public could force the Russians to change their plans or even drop them altogether. But as is so often the case, these US and UK claims rest on The Intelligence, which us commoners are not permitted to see lest we compromise the sacred Sources and Methods by which The Intelligence is derived. And so we’re left to trust the word of a couple of governments that really don’t warrant the benefit of the doubt where military matters are concerned. It’s sort of a no-lose scenario for the national security establishment. If the Russians invade then they were right and we should trust them the next time they hype a threat like this. If the Russians don’t invade then it was their brave leaking and posting that thwarted Putin’s plans for world conquest, plus that $778 billion military that, come to think of it, could probably use a little more cash if you really want to deter The Bad Guys.
Gaby Del Valle & Felipe De La Hoz
We’ve certainly talked plenty about the horrors of civil ICE detention, which is supposed to be non-punitive but is oftentimes indistinguishable or even worse than criminal detention. From a pervasive lack of healthcare in detention, to substandard and insufficient food, to frequent and seemingly random transfers, the detention environment is uniformly appalling, which make any alternative sound good. This is the thrust behind many liberal Democrats’ push in favor of so-called alternatives to detention (ATD) programs, which utilize check-ins and technologies such as ankle bracelets and tracking apps to keep tabs on people released from custody.
It’s hard to argue that existing alternatives to detention are better than being in a squalid detention center, but that doesn’t mean they don’t raise any concerns. The growing trend of what some activists call “e-carceration” means more and more people are being put into an active surveillance panopticon which, rather than replacing detention, has just been growing alongside it. While detention space is limited, a virtually unlimited number of people can be placed into technological ATD programs, an enormous temptation for an administration that has worried incessantly about appearing soft on illegal immigration while facing extreme pressure from progressives and advocacy groups to cut back on detention.
As we wrote in last week’s BORDER/LINES, the Biden administration is acting on this temptation as it plans the rollout of a house arrest pilot program, which would expand on the existing ATD structure by adding a requirement for immigrants to remain in their homes during nighttime hours. Until now, geographical delimitations have been as broad as staying in the state. It’s almost certain that the pilot will rely on the same technologies as the existing programs—which, in the case of the widely-used, biometric-scanning SmartLINK app, comes from a subsidiary of what is already one of the largest private prison contractors in the country—which are all expected to keep growing with enthusiastic funding from Congress.
Last week, I ran another excellent guest post from a pseudonymous journalist who received a heart transplant as a teenager. Her life will always be shaped by this—not just because of the constant medical care she needs, or the drugs she has to take every day, but because of the cost of these things. She needs insurance to live, and the insurance her job offered was just too expensive to afford. This is the hand she was dealt at birth.
I also started paywalling posts! If you enjoy Sick Note, now is a great time to subscribe. Follow that link to read more about what I’ve written over the past year. You’ll get access to exclusive stories, weekly healthcare news roundups (this week’s was about hospital CEO pay), and more. Subscriptions are 30 percent off through the end of February.
Correction: Luke’s language about our joint subscription deal thing is correct, mine is wrong, sorry