Brian Alexander, Glass House: The 1% Economy and the Shattering of the All-American Town: So, financialization destroyed the American economy while convincing (white) Americans that the problem was liberal government and its handouts. Alexander traces the collapse of one town, Lancaster, Ohio, which used to have a lot of manufacturing including a huge glass factory. Lancaster was a decent deal if you were white, especially if you were Protestant; a white man could work hard and have a decent, though not lavish, life, and his wife could stay home and raise the kids while being involved in the community. Some of the story follows heroin addicts, mostly young, who may have come from middle-class families but see no future, and no reason to leave either. Longtime residents decided that these troublemakers and ne’er-do-wells were outsiders who’d come in to get free food and welfare, but really they were from longtime Lancaster families—they just didn’t have any belief in anything bigger or better.
The rest traces the fate of the Anchor Hocking glass factory, from paternalistic employer whose executives lived in the town and felt responsibility for it to asset bought up by various “investors” (corporate raiders, S&Ls that collapsed in scandal, venture capital/private equity geniuses) whose short-term desire for profits led them to load it up with debt, merge it with other companies, fire lots of people, delay maintenance until things fell apart, charge it tens of millions of dollars in management fees, and then repeat the cycle all over again, weakening the company each time in ways that the people of the town couldn’t even understand. Management shorted contributions to the pension funds that workers had bargained for years ago, destroying their retirements. The jobs didn’t just disappear; they were destroyed, and destroying them made a small number of people a whole lot wealthier. The union made concessions and people took nominal, not just real, pay cuts, and still they kept losing jobs, even as the consultants and lawyers made hundreds of dollars an hour.
But none of these machinations were visible, though Alexander doesn’t really ever explain why that made “Obama” or “government” the scapegoat instead. As Alexander points out, “Whether because of the conservative small-government tide ushered in by Reagan, or because many internalized its diminished status and lost confidence in the future—any any willingness to invest in it—or both, Lancaster stopped spending on itself.” The schools deteriorated; streets and fire protection deteriorated; civic life deteriorated, including the rise of scandals of government mismanagement. To keep Anchor Hocking in town, the city took money from schools and gave it 100% tax abatements—then lost the jobs anyway. People with money liked Republicans; union and working-class people often didn’t vote and saw gay and transgender rights “as an attempt to impose an exotic order”; Alexander discusses one man who “leaned Democrat but sometimes voted Republican because he worried that Democrats wanted his guns.” Locals blamed the government for encouraging idleness and baby-having. At the same time, the town owed many of its remaining jobs to government: Medicaid and Medicare supplied 60% of the hospital’s income, and the hospital was the town’s biggest employer while the public schools came second and Anchor Hocking only third. Many blamed corruption and drugs on “a breakdown of old restirctions and codes,” “[a]n aversion to hard work,” but attributed those things to “the media” or liberalism, “not the decades of lousy education, economic collapse, and the minimum-wage and barely-above-minimum-wage dead-end jobs that replaced factory work.” People who had good jobs no longer involved themselves in the town, commuting elsewhere to work and focusing on their own concerns—in part because they were so busy working.
Racism flutters in around the edges, as with the slurs that Lancaster’s drug-buying whites used to describe their black and Latino connections. Confederate flags became more popular in the wake of Dylann Roof’s mass murder. “They denied the racist and traitorous interpretations of the flag in favor of disobedience. Just as with guns, it didn’t matter that they hadn’t been interested in flying the Confederate flag thirty years before.” Lower-class whites felt screwed, and they thought, correctly, that somebody must be screwing them—they just didn’t figure out who. They liked Trump’s attack on Obamacare and his anti-Mexican immigrant stance.
The diagnosis is grim. Politicians who enabled deregulation and financialization have not suffered; the social contract has fractured and taken trust and the feeling of being part of something bigger with it. Alexander has no solutions, only a record of decline.
Creativity Without Law: Challenging the Assumptions of Intellectual Property, eds. Kate Darling & Aaron Perzanowski: Mainly collecting/updating work on “negative spaces” in IP, including my own. Unprotected subject matter: French chefs’ recipes; cocktails; medical innovations by doctors, including devices and procedures. Counterculture: tattoos, graffiti, roller derby. Other content creators who work in copyrightable media but for various reasons can’t/don’t make copyright work for them: fanworks, pornography online, Nollywood. Chris Sprigman ends with a discussion of fashion and comedy, and a call for IP lawyers to become innovation lawyers. Matthew Schruers on cocktails is the topic I hadn’t seen before. Schruers traces cocktails’ origins in medical treatments (where bitters come from), then asks where innovation comes from since recipes generally can’t be protected by copyright, trademark, or patent. In part, he suggests, new recipes are invented as part of performances by bartenders; others are promoted by brands to sell their liquor, as “disruptive” tech innovators often provide a complementary good for free to increase demand. I loved the complaint of one industry player: “brand ambassadors are ruining it … In no other creative field do you find people who are so easily able to insert themselves into the scene.” I have some bad news, buddy. As Schruers points out, “this is not a complaint about piracy; it is about competition.” Innovation occurs without legal protection because there are external motivations to innovate.
Francesca Coppa, The Fanfiction Reader: Folk Tales for the Digital Age: There’s nothing I don’t love about this book, including its reliance on fair use. The cover shows popular characters as modern archetypes—the Demon Hunter, the Billionaire, the Rock Star, the FBI Agent—and I love that we can recognize Mulder’s mouth and Dean Winchester’s jawline and Tony Stark’s jawline along with John Boyega and Benedict Cumberbach’s faces. Coppa provides introductory essays and further reading for each of the stories, which are chosen to illustrate specific types of fan fiction, tropes, and themes in responses to popular culture. The stories are both accessible and really good, which can be a hard trick to pull off. Among my favorites, Rheanna’s Lunch and Other Obscenities (ST:Reboot); Koi’s Three Fairy Tales of Smallville (SV); Astolat’s Queen of Spades (Bond), and Glockgal’s Supernatural, aka the Boys in Arizona (SPN). But those are just my favorites because of my own personal connections; even without that, the essays are illuminating and the stories powerful.
Rory Carroll, Comandante: Hugo Chávez’s Venezuela: Another entry in my “trying to understand Trump” reading. Chávez comes off as a brilliant clown with an actual interest in ideology, and not just in comparison to Trump—he’s an actual reader, or was at the beginning, and went to jail briefly in service of his beliefs. In power, he acted arbitrarily because arbitrariness helped him be the only source of authority; he’d order a row of stores expropriated on national TV just to show off. Doing that on TV made his rule look transparent, too. But what the TV didn’t show was the weeks of government officials sniffing around the stores, asking questions and taking pictures, or the way that store owners snuck into their stores after the cameras left to remove everything of value, or the way that a year later the expropriated stores were boarded up, “the architectural and historic projects [promised by Chávez] yet to begin, possibly forgotten.” He dominated the media, taking up everyone’s thoughts, making people feel nervous if they were away from the news because of what might’ve happened in the interim.
Chávez used oil wealth to buy loyalty with large groups benefited with health care and other subsidies—electricity, phones, cars, houses; even when the health clinics faltered (especially after groups of Cuban doctors stopped becoming available), there were few alternatives. Gas subsidies were such that in 2011 a person could fill an SUV’s tank for under a dollar. Chávez also pushed through a law that was used to bankrupt human rights watchdogs, prison welfare groups, and other anti-government irritants. Crime exploded; police killed between 500-1000 people a year; the prisons were hellholes; Chávez avoided blame for the gangs and the rampant kidnappings and murders by simply not talking about it at all, letting Venezuelans blame local authorities. At the same time, education subsidies let people go to college who otherwise wouldn’t have been able to get any education at all. Rolling electricity blackouts in 2010 required Chávez to decide between the subsidies that kept him popular or the industrial heartland of Ciudad Guayana that made aluminum; this was no choice at all. Because Chávez shut it down the smelters so fast, entire plants were ruined. Unmaintained roads fell apart. Chávez seized and redistributed a million hectares of privately owned land to cooperatives, 90% of which failed, in part because there were no financial controls and people could just abscond with money, in part because there was no training or infrastructure. Chávez did another round of expropriation, which scared private farmers who stopped investing. Coops didn’t fill the gap, and so food imports increased. The “oil curse” thus helped destroy Venezuelan agriculture.
Still, the oil money flowed. Chávez promised homes for everyone, and millions registered for the homes, giving them a perceived stake in the continuation of the regime—and creating a valuable electoral database for Chávez.
The powerful hatred felt by elites for him spurred an equal and opposite love in the poor (also with an element of racial antagonism, since Chávez was embraced by groups who tended to be darker-skinned than the elites, and refreshingly when he took over the TV stations Venezuelans finally saw more of themselves both as reporters and reported-on). He was obsessed with surveillance, constantly monitoring both enemies and allies and strategically releasing information to discredit either as needed; the result among politicians and government officials was widespread (justified) paranoia about being monitored. Because of how personalized Chávez made politics, influence and corruption ruled. Officials high and low were terrified to resist because he could destroy their reputations, or at least take their jobs, and they needed to eat and they needed to think they were doing some good, so they just kept going, doing the daily work that kept protest atomized and the regime in power. Repression involved very little in the way of direct physical coercion, just “threats, fines, and jail terms.” Mostly, the book concludes, Chávez’s story is a story of waste—wasted potential, wasted resources. So, you know, parallels and not.