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Too long and too many charts to c/p from my phone but basically
We began to study this ecosystem by looking at the landscape of what sites people share. If a person shares a link from Breitbart, is he or she more likely also to share a link from Fox News or from The New York Times? We analyzed hyperlinking patterns, social media sharing patterns on Facebook and Twitter, and topic and language patterns in the content of the 1.25 million stories, published by 25,000 sources over the course of the election, using Media Cloud, an open-source platform for studying media ecosystems developed by Harvard’s Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society and MIT’s Center for Civic Media.

When we map media sources this way, we see that Breitbart became the center of a distinct right-wing media ecosystem, surrounded by Fox News, the Daily Caller, the Gateway Pundit, the Washington Examiner, Infowars, Conservative Treehouse, and Truthfeed.

Use of disinformation by partisan media sources is neither new nor limited to the right wing, but the insulation of the partisan right-wing media from traditional journalistic media sources, and the vehemence of its attacks on journalism in common cause with a similarly outspoken president, is new and distinctive.

General Discussion / Did anyone watch the Oscars?
« on: February 27, 2017, 11:51:01 AM »
my fb feed is filled with comments like "wtf is going on right now??" And "omg I'm so uncomfortable #oscars" but no one says what actually happened

General Discussion / Help me remember an old flash game
« on: February 24, 2017, 06:11:53 PM »
It popped into my head suddenly but I remember almost nothing about it. I think it came out around the same time as Grow Cube, and it's a similar sort of thing--you basically just click on shit on the screen in the correct order to try to get a sequence of events to line up so that some particular thing happens.

I wanna say it was called somethingsomething Ville or somethingsomething City, where the first word is like "calamity" or "accident" or something. And there were at least two of them.

I can't remember if it's something I came across here originally or if it's older than that--Red might be my only hope of getting an answer here because I know I played the shit out of it for a brief interval back in the day.


Arizona Senate votes to seize assets of those who plan, participate in protests that turn violent

By: Howard Fischer, Capitol Media Services February 22, 2017 , 5:11 pm

Claiming people are being paid to riot, Republican state senators voted Wednesday to give police new power to arrest anyone who is involved in a peaceful demonstration that may turn bad — even before anything actually happened.
SB1142 expands the state’s racketeering laws, now aimed at organized crime, to also include rioting. And it redefines what constitutes rioting to include actions that result in damage to the property of others.
But the real heart of the legislation is what Democrats say is the guilt by association — and giving the government the right to criminally prosecute and seize the assets of everyone who planned a protest and everyone who participated. And what’s worse, said Sen. Steve Farley, D-Tucson, is that the person who may have broken a window, triggering the claim there was a riot, might actually not be a member of the group but someone from the other side.
Sen. Martin Quezada, D-Phoenix, acknowledged that sometimes what’s planned as a peaceful demonstration can go south.
“When people want to express themselves as a group during a time of turmoil, during a time of controversy, during a time of high emotions, that’s exactly when people gather as a community,’’ he said. “Sometimes they yell, sometimes they scream, sometimes they do go too far.’’
Quezada said, though, that everything that constitutes rioting already is a crime, ranging from assault to criminal damage, and those responsible can be individually prosecuted. He said the purpose of this bill appears to be designed to chill the First Amendment rights of people to decide to demonstrate in the first place for fear something could wrong.
But Sen. John Kavanagh, R-Fountain Hills, said that chilling effect is aimed at a very specific group of protesters.
“You now have a situation where you have full-time, almost professional agent-provocateurs that attempt to create public disorder,’’ he said.
“A lot of them are ideologues, some of them are anarchists,’’ Kavanagh continued. “But this stuff is all planned.’’
There’s something else: By including rioting in racketeering laws, it actually permits police to arrest those who are planning events. And Kavanagh, a former police officer, said if there are organized groups, “I should certainly hope that our law enforcement people have some undercover people there.’’
“Wouldn’t you rather stop a riot before it starts?’’ Kavanagh asked colleagues during debate. “Do you really want to wait until people are injuring each other, throwing Molotov cocktails, picking up barricades and smashing them through businesses in downtown Phoenix?’’
Sen. Sylvia Allen, R-Snowflake, said the new criminal laws are necessary.
“I have been heartsick with what’s been going on in our country, what young people are being encouraged to do,’’ she said.
She agreed with Quezada that there already are laws that cover overt acts. But Allen said they don’t work.
“If they get thrown in jail, somebody pays to get them out,’’ she said. “There has to be something to deter them from that.’’
Farley, however, said the legislation does far more than simply going after those who might incite people to riot, something which actually already is a crime. And he warned Republicans that such a broad law could end up being used against some of their allies.
For example, he said, a “Tea Party’’ group wanting to protest a property tax hike might get permits, publicize the event and have a peaceful demonstration.
“And one person, possibly from the other side, starts breaking the windows of a car,’’ Farley said.
“And all of a sudden the organizers of that march, the local Tea Party, are going to be under indictment from the county attorney in the county that raised those property taxes,’’ he said. “That will have a chilling effect on anybody, right or left, who wants to protest something the government has done.’’
Sen. Katie Hobbs, D-Phoenix, said the whole legislation is based on a false premise of how disturbances happen.
“This idea that people are being paid to come out and do that?’’ she said. “I’m sorry, but I think that is fake news.’’
Sen. Andrea Dalessandro, D-Green Valley, had her own concerns.
“I’m fearful that ‘riot’ is in the eyes of the beholder and that this bill will apply more strictly to minorities and people trying to have their voice heard,’’ she said.
The 17-13 party-line vote sends the bill to the House.

Tech Heads / Latex display on wikipedia on iphone
« on: February 16, 2017, 05:53:04 PM »
how's this for a niche issue?

Whenever I go to wikipedia to look up something math related on my iphone, all the latex shows up super tiny in both chrome and safari. Anyone know a workaround for thos?

General Discussion / Was the muslim ban a "trial balloon for a coup"?
« on: January 30, 2017, 01:06:54 PM »
The theme of this morning’s news updates from Washington is additional clarity emerging, rather than meaningful changes in the field. But this clarity is enough to give us a sense of what we just saw happen, and why it happened the way it did.

I’ll separate what’s below into the raw news reports and analysis; you may also find these two pieces from yesterday (heavily referenced below) to be useful.
From “The Day After Tomorrow.” I resisted the temptation to use the analogous shot from “Planet of the Apes.”
News Reports

(1) Priebus made two public statements today. One is that the ban on Muslims will no longer be applied to green card holders. Notably absent from his statement was anything about people with other types of visa (including long-term ones), or anything about the DHS’ power to unilaterally revoke green cards in bulk.

The other was that the omission of Jews from the statement for Holocaust Remembrance Day was deliberate and is not regretted.

A point of note here is that Priebus is the one making these statements, which is not normally the Chief of Staff’s job. I’ll come back to that below.

(2) Rudy Giuliani told Fox News that the intent of yesterday’s order was very much a ban on Muslims, described in those words, and he was among the people Trump asked how they could find a way to do this legally.

(3) CNN has a detailed story (heavily sourced) about the process by which this ban was created and announced. Notable in this is that the DHS’ lawyers objected to the order, specifically its exclusion of green card holders, as illegal, and also pressed for there to be a grace period so that people currently out of the country wouldn’t be stranded — and they were personally overruled by Bannon and Stephen Miller. Also notable is that career DHS staff, up to and including the head of Customs & Border Patrol, were kept entirely out of the loop until the order was signed.

(4) The Guardian is reporting (heavily sourced) that the “mass resignations” of nearly all senior staff at the State Department on Thursday were not, in fact, resignations, but a purge ordered by the White House. As the diagram below (by Emily Roslin v Praze) shows, this leaves almost nobody in the entire senior staff of the State Department at this point.
The seniormost staff of the Department of State. Blue X’s are unfilled positions; red X’s are positions which were purged. Note that the “filled” positions are not actually confirmed yet.

As the Guardian points out, this has an important and likely not accidental effect: it leaves the State Department entirely unstaffed during these critical first weeks, when orders like the Muslim ban (which they would normally resist) are coming down.

The article points out another point worth highlighting: “In the past, the state department has been asked to set up early foreign contacts for an incoming administration. This time however it has been bypassed, and Trump’s immediate circle of Steve Bannon, Michael Flynn, son-in-law Jared Kushner and Reince Priebus are making their own calls.”

(5) On Inauguration Day, Trump apparently filed his candidacy for 2020. Beyond being unusual, this opens up the ability for him to start accepting “campaign contributions” right away. Given that a sizable fraction of the campaign funds from the previous cycle were paid directly to the Trump organization in exchange for building leases, etc., at inflated rates, you can assume that those campaign coffers are a mechanism by which US nationals can easily give cash bribes directly to Trump. Non-US nationals can, of course, continue to use Trump’s hotels and other businesses as a way to funnel money to him.

(6) Finally, I want to highlight a story that many people haven’t noticed. On Wednesday, Reuters reported (in great detail) how 19.5% of Rosneft, Russia’s state oil company, has been sold to parties unknown. This was done through a dizzying array of shell companies, so that the most that can be said with certainty now is that the money “paying” for it was originally loaned out to the shell layers by VTB (the government’s official bank), even though it’s highly unclear who, if anyone, would be paying that loan back; and the recipients have been traced as far as some Cayman Islands shell companies.

Why is this interesting? Because the much-maligned Steele Dossier (the one with the golden showers in it) included the statement that Putin had offered Trump 19% of Rosneft if he became president and removed sanctions. The reason this is so interesting is that the dossier said this in July, and the sale didn’t happen until early December. And 19.5% sounds an awful lot like “19% plus a brokerage commission.”

Conclusive? No. But it raises some very interesting questions for journalists to investigate.
What does this all mean?

I see a few key patterns here. First, the decision to first block, and then allow, green card holders was meant to create chaos and pull out opposition; they never intended to hold it for too long. It wouldn’t surprise me if the goal is to create “resistance fatigue,” to get Americans to the point where they’re more likely to say “Oh, another protest? Don’t you guys ever stop?” relatively quickly.

However, the conspicuous absence of provisions preventing them from executing any of the “next steps” I outlined yesterday, such as bulk revocation of visas (including green cards) from nationals of various countries, and then pursuing them using mechanisms being set up for Latinos, highlights that this does not mean any sort of backing down on the part of the regime.

Note also the most frightening escalation last night was that the DHS made it fairly clear that they did not feel bound to obey any court orders. CBP continued to deny all access to counsel, detain people, and deport them in direct contravention to the court’s order, citing “upper management,” and the DHS made a formal (but confusing) statement that they would continue to follow the President’s orders. (See my updates from yesterday, and the various links there, for details) Significant in today’s updates is any lack of suggestion that the courts’ authority played a role in the decision.

That is to say, the administration is testing the extent to which the DHS (and other executive agencies) can act and ignore orders from the other branches of government. This is as serious as it can possibly get: all of the arguments about whether order X or Y is unconstitutional mean nothing if elements of the government are executing them and the courts are being ignored.

Yesterday was the trial balloon for a coup d’état against the United States. It gave them useful information.

A second major theme is watching the set of people involved. There appears to be a very tight “inner circle,” containing at least Trump, Bannon, Miller, Priebus, Kushner, and possibly Flynn, which is making all of the decisions. Other departments and appointees have been deliberately hobbled, with key orders announced to them only after the fact, staff gutted, and so on. Yesterday’s reorganization of the National Security Council mirrors this: Bannon and Priebus now have permanent seats on the Principals’ Committee; the Director of National Intelligence and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff have both been demoted to only attending meetings where they are told that their expertise is relevant; the Secretary of Energy and the US representative to the UN were kicked off the committee altogether (in defiance of the authorizing statute, incidentally).

I am reminded of Trump’s continued operation of a private personal security force, and his deep rift with the intelligence community. Last Sunday, Kellyanne Conway (likely another member of the inner circle) said that “It’s really time for [Trump] to put in his own security and intelligence community,” and this seems likely to be the case.

As per my analysis yesterday, Trump is likely to want his own intelligence service disjoint from existing ones and reporting directly to him; given the current staffing and roles of his inner circle, Bannon is the natural choice for them to report through. (Having neither a large existing staff, nor any Congressional or Constitutional restrictions on his role as most other Cabinet-level appointees do) Keith Schiller would continue to run the personal security force, which would take over an increasing fraction of the Secret Service’s job.

Especially if combined with the DHS and the FBI, which appear to have remained loyal to the President throughout the recent transition, this creates the armature of a shadow government: intelligence and police services which are not accountable through any of the normal means, answerable only to the President.

(Note, incidentally, that the DHS already has police authority within 100 miles of any border of the US; since that includes coastlines, this area includes over 60% of Americans, and eleven entire states. They also have a standing force of over 45,000 officers, and just received authorization to hire 15,000 more on Wednesday.)

The third theme is money. Trump’s decision to keep all his businesses (not bothering with any blind trusts or the like), and his fairly open diversion of campaign funds, made it fairly clear from the beginning that he was seeing this as a way to become rich in the way that only dedicated kleptocrats can, and this week’s updates definitely tally with that. Kushner looks increasingly likely to be the money-man, acting as the liaison between piles of cash and the president.

This gives us a pretty good guess as to what the exit strategy is: become tremendously, and untraceably, rich, by looting any coffers that come within reach.

Combining all of these facts, we have a fairly clear picture in play.

    Trump was, indeed, perfectly honest during the campaign; he intends to do everything he said, and more. This should not be reassuring to you.
    The regime’s main organizational goal right now is to transfer all effective power to a tight inner circle, eliminating any possible checks from either the Federal bureaucracy, Congress, or the Courts. Departments are being reorganized or purged to effect this.
    The inner circle is actively probing the means by which they can seize unchallenged power; yesterday’s moves should be read as the first part of that.
    The aims of crushing various groups — Muslims, Latinos, the black and trans communities, academics, the press — are very much primary aims of the regime, and are likely to be acted on with much greater speed than was earlier suspected. The secondary aim of personal enrichment is also very much in play, and clever people will find ways to play these two goals off each other.

If you’re looking for estimates of what this means for the future, I’ll refer you back to yesterday’s post on what “things going wrong” can look like. Fair warning: I stuffed that post with pictures of cute animals for a reason.

tldr; yes, it probably was.

General Discussion / The data that turned the world upside down
« on: January 30, 2017, 01:02:46 PM »

Psychologist Michal Kosinski developed a method to analyze people in minute detail based on their Facebook activity. Did a similar tool help propel Donald Trump to victory? Two reporters from Zurich-based Das Magazin (where an earlier version of this story appeared in December in German) went data-gathering.

On November 9 at around 8.30 AM., Michal Kosinski woke up in the Hotel Sunnehus in Zurich. The 34-year-old researcher had come to give a lecture at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (ETH) about the dangers of Big Data and the digital revolution. Kosinski gives regular lectures on this topic all over the world. He is a leading expert in psychometrics, a data-driven sub-branch of psychology. When he turned on the TV that morning, he saw that the bombshell had exploded: contrary to forecasts by all leading statisticians, Donald J. Trump had been elected president of the United States.

For a long time, Kosinski watched the Trump victory celebrations and the results coming in from each state. He had a hunch that the outcome of the election might have something to do with his research. Finally, he took a deep breath and turned off the TV.

On the same day, a then little-known British company based in London sent out a press release: “We are thrilled that our revolutionary approach to data-driven communication has played such an integral part in President-elect Trump’s extraordinary win,” Alexander James Ashburner Nix was quoted as saying. Nix is British, 41 years old, and CEO of Cambridge Analytica. He is always immaculately turned out in tailor-made suits and designer glasses, with his wavy blonde hair combed back from his forehead. His company wasn't just integral to Trump’s online campaign, but to the UK's Brexit campaign as well.

Of these three players—reflective Kosinski, carefully groomed Nix and grinning Trump—one of them enabled the digital revolution, one of them executed it and one of them benefited from it.

How dangerous is big data?

Anyone who has not spent the last five years living on another planet will be familiar with the term Big Data. Big Data means, in essence, that everything we do, both on and offline, leaves digital traces. Every purchase we make with our cards, every search we type into Google, every movement we make when our mobile phone is in our pocket, every “like” is stored. Especially every “like.” For a long time, it was not entirely clear what use this data could have—except, perhaps, that we might find ads for high blood pressure remedies just after we’ve Googled “reduce blood pressure.”

On November 9, it became clear that maybe much more is possible. The company behind Trump’s online campaign—the same company that had worked for Leave.EU in the very early stages of its "Brexit" campaign—was a Big Data company: Cambridge Analytica.

To understand the outcome of the election—and how political communication might work in the future—we need to begin with a strange incident at Cambridge University in 2014, at Kosinski’s Psychometrics Center.

Psychometrics, sometimes also called psychographics, focuses on measuring psychological traits, such as personality. In the 1980s, two teams of psychologists developed a model that sought to assess human beings based on five personality traits, known as the “Big Five.” These are: openness (how open you are to new experiences?), conscientiousness (how much of a perfectionist are you?), extroversion (how sociable are you?), agreeableness (how considerate and cooperative you are?) and neuroticism (are you easily upset?). Based on these dimensions—they are also known as OCEAN, an acronym for openness, conscientiousness, extroversion, agreeableness, neuroticism—we can make a relatively accurate assessment of the kind of person in front of us. This includes their needs and fears, and how they is likely to behave. The ”Big Five” has become the standard technique of psychometrics. But for a long time, the problem with this approach was data collection, because it involved filling out a complicated, highly personal questionnaire. Then came the Internet. And Facebook. And Kosinski.

Michal Kosinski was a student in Warsaw when his life took a new direction in 2008. He was accepted by Cambridge University to do his PhD at the Psychometrics Centre, one of the oldest institutions of this kind worldwide. Kosinski joined fellow student David Stillwell (now a lecturer at Judge Business School at the University of Cambridge) about a year after Stillwell had launched a little Facebook application in the days when the platform had not yet become the behemoth it is today. Their MyPersonality app enabled users to fill out different psychometric questionnaires, including a handful of psychological questions from the Big Five personality questionnaire (“I panic easily,“ “I contradict others”). Based on the evaluation, users received a “personality profile”—individual Big Five values—and could opt-in to share their Facebook profile data with the researchers.

    Followers of Lady Gaga were most probably extroverts, while those who “liked” philosophy tended to be introverts.

Kosinski had expected a few dozen college friends to fill in the questionnaire, but before long, hundreds, thousands, then millions of people had revealed their innermost convictions. Suddenly, the two doctoral candidates owned the largest dataset combining psychometric scores with Facebook profiles ever to be collected.

The approach that Kosinski and his colleagues developed over the next few years was actually quite simple. First, they provided test subjects with a questionnaire in the form of an online quiz. From their responses, the psychologists calculated the personal Big Five values of respondents. Kosinski’s team then compared the results with all sorts of other online data from the subjects: what they “liked," shared or posted on Facebook, or what gender, age, place of residence they specified, for example. This enabled the researchers to connect the dots and make correlations.

Remarkably reliable deductions could be drawn from simple online actions. For example, men who “liked” the cosmetics brand MAC were slightly more likely to be gay; one of the best indicators for heterosexuality was “liking” Wu-Tang Clan. Followers of Lady Gaga were most probably extroverts, while those who “liked” philosophy tended to be introverts. While each piece of such information is too weak to produce a reliable prediction, when tens, hundreds, or thousands of individual data points are combined, the resulting predictions become really accurate.

Kosinski and his team tirelessly refined their models. In 2012, Kosinski proved that on the basis of an average of 68 Facebook “likes” by a user, it was possible to predict their skin color (with 95 percent accuracy), their sexual orientation (88 percent accuracy), and their affiliation to the Democratic or Republican party (85 percent). But it didn’t stop there. Intelligence, religious affiliation, as well as alcohol, cigarette and drug use, could all be determined. From the data it was even possible to deduce whether deduce whether someone's parents were divorced.

The strength of their modeling was illustrated by how well it could predict a subject’s answers. Kosinski continued to work on the models incessantly: before long, he was able to evaluate a person better than the average work colleague, merely on the basis of ten Facebook “likes.” Seventy “likes” were enough to outdo what a person’s friends knew, 150 what their parents knew, and 300 “likes” what their partner knew. More “likes” could even surpass what a person thought they knew about themselves. On the day that Kosinski published these findings, he received two phone calls. The threat of a lawsuit and a job offer. Both from Facebook.

Michal Kosinski. Courtesy of Kosinski

Only weeks later Facebook “likes“ became private by default. Before that, the default setting was that anyone on the internet could see your "likes." But this was no obstacle to data collectors: while Kosinski always asked for the consent of Facebook users, many apps and online quizzes today require access to private data as a precondition for taking personality tests. (Anybody who wants to evaluate themselves based on their Facebook “likes” can do so on Kosinski’s website, and then compare their results to those of a classic Ocean questionnaire, like that of the Cambridge Psychometrics Center.)

    Our smartphone, Kosinski concluded, is a vast psychological questionnaire that we are constantly filling out, both consciously and unconsciously.

But it was not just about “likes” or even Facebook: Kosinski and his team could now ascribe Big Five values based purely on how many profile pictures a person has on Facebook, or how many contacts they have (a good indicator of extraversion). But we also reveal something about ourselves even when we’re not online. For example, the motion sensor on our phone reveals how quickly we move and how far we travel (this correlates with emotional instability). Our smartphone, Kosinski concluded, is a vast psychological questionnaire that we are constantly filling out, both consciously and unconsciously.

Above all, however—and this is key—it also works in reverse: not only can psychological profiles be created from your data, but your data can also be used the other way round to search for specific profiles: all anxious fathers, all angry introverts, for example—or maybe even all undecided Democrats? Essentially, what Kosinski had invented was sort of a people search engine. He started to recognize the potential—but also the inherent danger—of his work.

To him, the internet had always seemed like a gift from heaven. What he really wanted was to give something back, to share. Data can be copied, so why shouldn’t everyone benefit from it? It was the spirit of a whole generation, the beginning of a new era that transcended the limitations of the physical world. But what would happen, wondered Kosinski, if someone abused his people search engine to manipulate people? He began to add warnings to most of his scientific work. His approach, he warned, “could pose a threat to an individual’s well-being, freedom, or even life.” But no one seemed to grasp what he meant.

Around this time, in early 2014, Kosinski was approached by a young assistant professor in the psychology department called Aleksandr Kogan. He said he was inquiring on behalf of a company that was interested in Kosinski’s method, and wanted to access the MyPersonality database. Kogan wasn’t at liberty to reveal for what purpose; he was bound to secrecy.

At first, Kosinski and his team considered this offer, as it would mean a great deal of money for the institute, but then he hesitated. Finally, Kosinski remembers, Kogan revealed the name of the company: SCL, or Strategic Communication Laboratories. Kosinski Googled the company: “[We are] the premier election management agency,” says the company’s website. SCL provides marketing based on psychological modeling. One of its core focuses: Influencing elections. Influencing elections? Perturbed, Kosinski clicked through the pages. What kind of company was this? And what were these people planning?

What Kosinski did not know at the time: SCL is the parent of a group of companies. Who exactly owns SCL and its diverse branches is unclear, thanks to a convoluted corporate structure, the type seen in the UK Companies House, the Panama Papers, and the Delaware company registry. Some of the SCL offshoots have been involved in elections from Ukraine to Nigeria, helped the Nepalese monarch against the rebels, whereas others have developed methods to influence Eastern European and Afghan citizens for NATO. And, in 2013, SCL spun off a new company to participate in US elections: Cambridge Analytica.

Kosinski knew nothing about all this, but he had a bad feeling. “The whole thing started to stink,” he recalls. On further investigation, he discovered that Aleksandr Kogan had secretly registered a company doing business with SCL. According to a December 2015 report in The Guardian and to internal company documents given to Das Magazin, it emerges that SCL learned about Kosinski’s method from Kogan.

Kosinski came to suspect that Kogan's company might have reproduced the Facebook "Likes"-based Big Five measurement tool in order to sell it to this election-influencing firm. He immediately broke off contact with Kogan and informed the director of the institute, sparking a complicated conflict within the university. The institute was worried about its reputation. Aleksandr Kogan then moved to Singapore, married, and changed his name to Dr. Spectre. Michal Kosinski finished his PhD, got a job offer from Stanford and moved to the US.

Mr. Brexit

All was quiet for about a year. Then, in November 2015, the more radical of the two Brexit campaigns, “Leave.EU,” supported by Nigel Farage, announced that it had commissioned a Big Data company to support its online campaign: Cambridge Analytica. The company’s core strength: innovative political marketing—microtargeting—by measuring people's personality from their digital footprints, based on the OCEAN model.

    After the Brexit result, friends and acquaintances wrote to him: Just look at what you’ve done.

Now Kosinski received emails asking what he had to do with it—the words Cambridge, personality, and analytics immediately made many people think of Kosinski. It was the first time he had heard of the company, which borrowed its name, it said, from its first employees, researchers from the university. Horrified, he looked at the website. Was his methodology being used on a grand scale for political purposes?

After the Brexit result, friends and acquaintances wrote to him: Just look at what you’ve done. Everywhere he went, Kosinski had to explain that he had nothing to do with this company. (It remains unclear how deeply Cambridge Analytica was involved in the Brexit campaign. Cambridge Analytica would not discuss such questions.)

For a few months, things are relatively quiet. Then, on September 19, 2016, just over a month before the US elections, the guitar riffs of Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Bad Moon Rising” fill the dark-blue hall of New York's Grand Hyatt hotel. The Concordia Summit is a kind of World Economic Forum in miniature. Decision-makers from all over the world have been invited, among them Swiss President Johann Schneider-Ammann. “Please welcome to the stage Alexander Nix, chief executive officer of Cambridge Analytica,” a smooth female voice announces. A slim man in a dark suit walks onto the stage. A hush falls. Many in attendance know that this is Trump’s new digital strategy man. (A video of the presentation was posted on YouTube.)

A few weeks earlier, Trump had tweeted, somewhat cryptically, "Soon you’ll be calling me Mr. Brexit." Political observers had indeed noticed some striking similarities between Trump’s agenda and that of the right-wing Brexit movement. But few had noticed the connection with Trump’s recent hiring of a marketing company named Cambridge Analytica.

Alexander Nix. Image: Cambridge Analytica

    “Pretty much every message that Trump put out was data-driven," says Cambridge Analytica CEO Alexander Nix

Up to this point, Trump’s digital campaign had consisted of more or less one person: Brad Parscale, a marketing entrepreneur and failed start-up founder who created a rudimentary website for Trump for $1,500. The 70-year-old Trump is not digitally savvy—there isn’t even a computer on his office desk. Trump doesn’t do emails, his personal assistant once revealed. She herself talked him into having a smartphone, from which he now tweets incessantly.

Hillary Clinton, on the other hand, relied heavily on the legacy of the first “social-media president,” Barack Obama. She had the address lists of the Democratic Party, worked with cutting-edge big data analysts from BlueLabs and received support from Google and DreamWorks. When it was announced in June 2016 that Trump had hired Cambridge Analytica, the establishment in Washington just turned up their noses. Foreign dudes in tailor-made suits who don’t understand the country and its people? Seriously?

“It is my privilege to speak to you today about the power of Big Data and psychographics in the electoral process.” The logo of Cambridge Analytica— a brain composed of network nodes, like a map, appears behind Alexander Nix. “Only 18 months ago, Senator Cruz was one of the less popular candidates,” explains the blonde man in a cut-glass British accent, which puts Americans on edge the same way that a standard German accent can unsettle Swiss people. “Less than 40 percent of the population had heard of him,” another slide says. Cambridge Analytica had become involved in the US election campaign almost two years earlier, initially as a consultant for Republicans Ben Carson and Ted Cruz. Cruz—and later Trump—was funded primarily by the secretive US software billionaire Robert Mercer who, along with his daughter Rebekah, is reported to be the largest investor in Cambridge Analytica.

“So how did he do this?” Up to now, explains Nix, election campaigns have been organized based on demographic concepts. “A really ridiculous idea. The idea that all women should receive the same message because of their gender—or all African Americans because of their race.” What Nix meant is that while other campaigners so far have relied on demographics, Cambridge Analytica was using psychometrics.

Though this might be true, Cambridge Analytica’s role within Cruz’s campaign isn’t undisputed. In December 2015 the Cruz team credited their rising success to psychological use of data and analytics. In Advertising Age, a political client said the embedded Cambridge staff was "like an extra wheel," but found their core product, Cambridge's voter data modeling, still ”excellent.” The campaign would pay the company at least $5.8 million to help identify voters in the Iowa caucuses, which Cruz won, before dropping out of the race in May.

Nix clicks to the next slide: five different faces, each face corresponding to a personality profile. It is the Big Five or OCEAN Model. “At Cambridge,” he said, “we were able to form a model to predict the personality of every single adult in the United States of America.” The hall is captivated. According to Nix, the success of Cambridge Analytica’s marketing is based on a combination of three elements: behavioral science using the OCEAN Model, Big Data analysis, and ad targeting. Ad targeting is personalized advertising, aligned as accurately as possible to the personality of an individual consumer.

Nix candidly explains how his company does this. First, Cambridge Analytica buys personal data from a range of different sources, like land registries, automotive data, shopping data, bonus cards, club memberships, what magazines you read, what churches you attend. Nix displays the logos of globally active data brokers like Acxiom and Experian—in the US, almost all personal data is for sale. For example, if you want to know where Jewish women live, you can simply buy this information, phone numbers included. Now Cambridge Analytica aggregates this data with the electoral rolls of the Republican party and online data and calculates a Big Five personality profile. Digital footprints suddenly become real people with fears, needs, interests, and residential addresses.

The methodology looks quite similar to the one that Michal Kosinski once developed. Cambridge Analytica also uses, Nix told us, “surveys on social media” and Facebook data. And the company does exactly what Kosinski warned of: “We have profiled the personality of every adult in the United States of America—220 million people,” Nix boasts.

He opens the screenshot. “This is a data dashboard that we prepared for the Cruz campaign.” A digital control center appears. On the left are diagrams; on the right, a map of Iowa, where Cruz won a surprisingly large number of votes in the primary. And on the map, there are hundreds of thousands of small red and blue dots. Nix narrows down the criteria: “Republicans”—the blue dots disappear; “not yet convinced”—more dots disappear; “male”, and so on. Finally, only one name remains, including age, address, interests, personality and political inclination. How does Cambridge Analytica now target this person with an appropriate political message?

Alexander Nix at the 2016 Concordia Summit in New York. Image: Concordia Summit

Nix shows how psychographically categorized voters can be differently addressed, based on the example of gun rights, the 2nd Amendment: “For a highly neurotic and conscientious audience the threat of a burglary—and the insurance policy of a gun.“ An image on the left shows the hand of an intruder smashing a window. The right side shows a man and a child standing in a field at sunset, both holding guns, clearly shooting ducks: “Conversely, for a closed and agreeable audience. People who care about tradition, and habits, and family.”

How to keep Clinton voters away from the ballot box

Trump’s striking inconsistencies, his much-criticized fickleness, and the resulting array of contradictory messages, suddenly turned out to be his great asset: a different message for every voter. The notion that Trump acted like a perfectly opportunistic algorithm following audience reactions is something the mathematician Cathy O’Neil observed in August 2016.

    These “dark posts”—sponsored Facebook posts that can only be seen by users with specific profiles—included videos aimed at African-Americans in which Hillary Clinton refers to black men as predators, for example.

“Pretty much every message that Trump put out was data-driven,” Alexander Nix remembers. On the day of the third presidential debate between Trump and Clinton, Trump’s team tested 175,000 different ad variations for his arguments, in order to find the right versions above all via Facebook. The messages differed for the most part only in microscopic details, in order to target the recipients in the optimal psychological way: different headings, colors, captions, with a photo or video. This fine-tuning reaches all the way down to the smallest groups, Nix explained in an interview with us. “We can address villages or apartment blocks in a targeted way. Even individuals.”

In the Miami district of Little Haiti, for instance, Trump’s campaign provided inhabitants with news about the failure of the Clinton Foundation following the earthquake in Haiti, in order to keep them from voting for Hillary Clinton. This was one of the goals: to keep potential Clinton voters (which include wavering left-wingers, African-Americans, and young women) away from the ballot box, to “suppress” their vote, as one senior campaign official told Bloomberg in the weeks before the election. These “dark posts”—sponsored news-feed-style ads in Facebook timelines that can only be seen by users with specific profiles—included videos aimed at African-Americans in which Hillary Clinton refers to black men as predators, for example.

Nix finishes his lecture at the Concordia Summit by stating that traditional blanket advertising is dead. “My children will certainly never, ever understand this concept of mass communication.” And before leaving the stage, he announced that since Cruz had left the race, the company was helping one of the remaining presidential candidates.

Just how precisely the American population was being targeted by Trump’s digital troops at that moment was not visible, because they attacked less on mainstream TV and more with personalized messages on social media or digital TV. And while the Clinton team thought it was in the lead, based on demographic projections, Bloomberg journalist Sasha Issenberg was surprised to note on a visit to San Antonio—where Trump’s digital campaign was based—that a “second headquarters” was being created. The embedded Cambridge Analytica team, apparently only a dozen people, received $100,000 from Trump in July, $250,000 in August, and $5 million in September. According to Nix, the company earned over $15 million overall. (The company is incorporated in the US, where laws regarding the release of personal data are more lax than in European Union countries. Whereas European privacy laws require a person to “opt in” to a release of data, those in the US permit data to be released unless a user “opts out.")

Groundgame, an app for election canvassing that integrates voter data with "geospatial visualization technology," was used by campaigners for Trump and Brexit. Image: L2

The measures were radical: From July 2016, Trump’s canvassers were provided with an app with which they could identify the political views and personality types of the inhabitants of a house. It was the same app provider used by Brexit campaigners. Trump’s people only rang at the doors of houses that the app rated as receptive to his messages. The canvassers came prepared with guidelines for conversations tailored to the personality type of the resident. In turn, the canvassers fed the reactions into the app, and the new data flowed back to the dashboards of the Trump campaign.

Again, this is nothing new. The Democrats did similar things, but there is no evidence that they relied on psychometric profiling. Cambridge Analytica, however, divided the US population into 32 personality types, and focused on just 17 states. And just as Kosinski had established that men who like MAC cosmetics are slightly more likely to be gay, the company discovered that a preference for cars made in the US was a great indication of a potential Trump voter. Among other things, these findings now showed Trump which messages worked best and where. The decision to focus on Michigan and Wisconsin in the final weeks of the campaign was made on the basis of data analysis. The candidate became the instrument for implementing a big data model.

What's Next?

But to what extent did psychometric methods influence the outcome of the election? When asked, Cambridge Analytica was unwilling to provide any proof of the effectiveness of its campaign. And it is quite possible that the question is impossible to answer.

And yet there are clues: There is the fact of the surprising rise of Ted Cruz during the primaries. Also there was an increased number of voters in rural areas. There was the decline in the number of African-American early votes. The fact that Trump spent so little money may also be explained by the effectiveness of personality-based advertising. As does the fact that he invested far more in digital than TV campaigning compared to Hillary Clinton. Facebook proved to be the ultimate weapon and the best election campaigner, as Nix explained, and as comments by several core Trump campaigners demonstrate.

Cambridge Analytica counts among its clients the U.S. State Department, and has been reported to have communicated with British Prime Minister Theresa May, pictured here with Secretary of State John Kerry on July 19, 2016. Image: U.S. Dept. of State

Many voices have claimed that the statisticians lost the election because their predictions were so off the mark. But what if statisticians in fact helped win the election—but only those who were using the new method? It is an irony of history that Trump, who often grumbled about scientific research, used a highly scientific approach in his campaign.

Another big winner is Cambridge Analytica. Its board member Steve Bannon, former executive chair of the right-wing online newspaper Breitbart News, has been appointed as Donald Trump’s senior counselor and chief strategist. Whilst Cambridge Analytica is not willing to comment on alleged ongoing talks with UK Prime Minister Theresa May, Alexander Nix claims that he is building up his client base worldwide, and that he has received inquiries from Switzerland, Germany, and Australia. His company is currently touring European conferences showcasing their success in the United States. This year three core countries of the EU are facing elections with resurgent populist parties: France, Holland and Germany. The electoral successes come at an opportune time, as the company is readying for a push into commercial advertising.

Kosinski has observed all of this from his office at Stanford. Following the US election, the university is in turmoil. Kosinski is responding to developments with the sharpest weapon available to a researcher: a scientific analysis. Together with his research colleague Sandra Matz, he has conducted a series of tests, which will soon be published. The initial results are alarming: The study shows the effectiveness of personality targeting by showing that marketers can attract up to 63 percent more clicks and up to 1,400 more conversions in real-life advertising campaigns on Facebook when matching products and marketing messages to consumers’ personality characteristics. They further demonstrate the scalability of personality targeting by showing that the majority of Facebook Pages promoting products or brands are affected by personality and that large numbers of consumers can be accurately targeted based on a single Facebook Page.

In a statement after the German publication of this article, a Cambridge Analytica spokesperson said, "Cambridge Analytica does not use data from Facebook. It has had no dealings with Dr. Michal Kosinski. It does not subcontract research. It does not use the same methodology. Psychographics was hardly used at all. Cambridge Analytica did not engage in efforts to discourage any Americans from casting their vote in the presidential election. Its efforts were solely directed towards increasing the number of voters in the election."

The world has been turned upside down. Great Britain is leaving the EU, Donald Trump is president of the United States of America. And in Stanford, Kosinski, who wanted to warn against the danger of using psychological targeting in a political setting, is once again receiving accusatory emails. “No,” says Kosinski, quietly and shaking his head. “This is not my fault. I did not build the bomb. I only showed that it exists.”

This is why we can't have nice things. Like Jeff Goldblum said in Jurassic Park, we get so fixated on whether we *can* do something that no one stops to consider whether we should. Did Kosinski really think that after demonstrating that such a powerful technology could work (and how) that slapping a "WARNING: COULD BE DANGEROUS IF USED BY BOND VILLAINS" label on the box was going to prevent its misuse? Fuck that guy.

But anyway, this is the type of thing that makes me think that any sort of cautious optimism in terms of the direction the political climate is headed is merely costing us time. Even broad-brush propaganda can be effective when you're being bombarded by it consistently enough. In combination with the political-theatrical misdirection that Putin's regime is known for and that Bannon is said to be taking after and somewhere, every day, a fence sitter is becoming a Gideon and a protester is becoming a fence sitter.

General Discussion / Americans: Doing things?
« on: January 28, 2017, 10:24:57 PM »
Jesus Christ I really don't even know what to say anymore

I reached this point pretty much immediately after election day. The evidently endless cycle of "did you hear that Trump __comic book villainy_______ yesterday?" "Oh my god, yeah, can you believe it?" shows no signs of slowing down and doesn't even really feel cathartic at this point. I personally see no room or cause for cautious optimism at this point--nothing that's happened so far surprises me, and what would surprise me at this point is if we get through the next four years without a war cropping up--and I feel like whatever limited potential we have to mitigate this shitshow is in direct proportion to how quickly Americans shake off the shock and grief and start really organizing, whether that's to vote in more acceptable assholes to replace the current assholes or just to throw increasingly large public tantrums until we get concessions, or whatever's clever.

Has anyone else been engaging in any kind of activism, or thinking about it? I've been volunteering a bunch every week and floating around a few different leftist groups trying to see where the bright ideas are. So far none of them seem to have many besides getting more people to show up regularly and try to come up with some. But I think even that is important--especially since Trump' and his cabinet's MO seems to be to gaslight the entire country until we forget he's a piece of shit and that most Americans think so.

If this seems like insufferable low-key bragging I really don't mean it that way--I have the luxury of having fewer obligations to schedule around/be exhausted by, and I'm just throwing myself at whatever seems productive, half just for my own sanity because I'm a lot more anxious about the current political climate than I get the sense many of you are (and if it seems ridiculous I hope in four years it seems as laughable to me as it does to you).

Spamalot / This post is just because I feel like it
« on: January 15, 2017, 11:32:02 PM »
and a very fine +1 to you, sirs

General Discussion / I just found out about the saddest casualty of 2016
« on: January 04, 2017, 05:33:23 PM » is gone

how do I got obscure music?


Jacobin says we did more harm than good

Thirty years ago the international development community was ecstatic. It had found the perfect market-affirming solution to poverty in developing countries: microcredit.

The popularizer of this new strategy — which consisted of providing small loans to the poor so they could launch self-employment ventures — was the US-trained Bangladeshi economist Muhammad Yunus, who portrayed microcredit as a panacea that would rapidly create an unlimited number of jobs and eradicate endemic poverty.

Yunus’s project of “bringing capitalism down to the poor” quickly turned him into the go-to-guy for advice on how best to address global poverty. In 1983, flush with funding, especially from US aid agencies and private foundations, Yunus established his own “bank for the poor” — the now-iconic Grameen Bank. Soon, Grameen clones, financed by the international donor community, sprang up across the Global South.

The microcredit movement was born. USAID and the World Bank were particularly supportive of the model, not least because they could now promote self-help and individual entrepreneurship — key components of the neoliberal capitalism both organizations were aggressively pushing at the time — on the basis of them being antidotes to poverty.

Neoclassical economists like Jeffrey Sachs also favored the microcredit model because it seemed to validate their economic development perspective, which was constructed on a foundation of individual entrepreneurship and market interaction. Sachs envisioned microcredit as a way of helping the poor escape their poverty by climbing what he termed the “ladder of development.”

By the mid-2000s, the model was being described as the most effective anti-poverty and “bottom-up” development intervention of all time. With support from across the political spectrum, the UN named 2005 the “year of microcredit.”

Microcredit also became one the few development policies known to, and supported by, ordinary people worldwide — a feat facilitated by the high-profile celebrities who supported the global effort, including Bill and Hillary Clinton, Bill Gates, Bono, Natalie Portman, and Matt Damon.

The movement reached its apotheosis in November 2006 at the Microcredit Summit in Halifax, Canada, an event that celebrated the progress to date while also extracting pledges from participants to ramp up the microcredit supply. With delegates bathing in the warm afterglow of the announcement some months earlier that Muhammad Yunus and the Grameen Bank would share the 2006 Nobel Peace Prize, there appeared to be nothing the model could not achieve.

Presenters argued that microcredit could positively impact health care, the environment, terrorism, and a whole host of other problems. Bernd Balkenhol, then head of the International Labour Organization’s Social Finance Unit, best encapsulated the movement zeitgeist when he described microcredit as “the strategy for poverty reduction par excellence.”

With ambitious expansion plans laid out, a future in which virtually every poor individual on the planet (especially women) could easily access microcredit appeared to be near. Also seemingly on the cusp of becoming reality were Yunus’s oft-repeated claims that microcredit would “eradicate poverty in a generation” and that our children would soon have to visit a “poverty museum” to see what all the fuss was about.

And then it all began to go horribly wrong.

The catalyst for the dramatic turn against microfinance was the Initial Public Offering (IPO) of Mexico’s largest microcredit bank, Banco Compartamos, in 2007. Here ordinary people learned not of microcredit’s impressive successes in reducing poverty in Mexico — there was and still is absolutely no evidence of this — but of the spectacular level of profiteering by senior managers and outside investors.

Most working in the microcredit sector were stunned by the sheer avarice of those involved. But “the Compartamos scandal” soon proved to be the tip of the iceberg. When numerous other instances of personal enrichment and unscrupulous behavior surfaced, it became clear that the microcredit model had essentially been taken over by greedy entrepreneurs, aggressive private banks, and hard-nosed investors.

At the same time, the veracity of the reports justifying the microcredit concept was increasingly being called into question. The evidence was so weak, in fact, that one major government-financed study in the United Kingdom concluded that the entire microcredit movement had been “constructed upon foundations of sand.” After a number of spectacularly destructive “boom-to-bust” episodes in all of the countries and regions where microcredit had reached critical mass, the previously rock-solid belief that microcredit helped the poor rapidly crumbled.

In little more than thirty years, the microcredit concept has gone from being equated with Zorro, the mythical Mexican hero and friend of the poor and exploited, to being widely referred to as a zombie policy, a dead and rotten idea that nevertheless keeps rising from the grave. How did it come to this?

Heightening Immiseration

The modern microcredit movement’s central problem is that it rests on a fundamental misunderstanding of economics. Yunus believed that the poor, and especially women, could establish an informal microenterprise and then sell basic goods and services to other poor people in the community.

This assumption was applied even in the poorest communities, where the poor (by definition) struggle to afford the simple items and services conducive to their basic survival. But Yunus thought that as long as the destitute could produce something, they could sell it. As he later famously put it, a “Grameen-type credit program opens up the door for limitless self-employment, and it can effectively do it in a pocket of poverty amidst prosperity, or in a massive poverty situation.”

Unfortunately, Yunus had embraced a long-disproven fallacy known as Say’s law — the idea that supply creates its own demand. As the late economist Alice Amsden explained, the core problem in developing countries is not the supply of basic items, but the sheer lack of local demand (or purchasing power) required to pay for them. Even in the poorest communities, there are generally enough retail stores, street food outlets, basket makers for people to access — if they have the financial means to do so.

A local “demand constraint” underlies two of the main shortcomings associated with microcredit: displacement and exit. Displacement occurs when new jobs and incomes registered in one microcredit-supported enterprise are cancelled out by the decline in jobs and incomes in incumbent competitor microenterprises. Exit is the process whereby both new and existing microenterprises are forced to close, due to the additional supply of informal microenterprises operating in the same sector.

As David Storey, an expert on small business policy, points out, “the single most important fact to be borne in mind when implementing measures for smaller firms is the high death rate of such businesses.” The reality behind the microcredit hype is that the vast majority of those who took out a microloan to invest in some income-generating project ended up failing or else displacing other struggling informal microenterprises operating in the same sector.

Failure leads to personal over-indebtedness, the diversion of other income flows (remittances, pensions) into repaying the loan, the loss of family assets pledged as collateral (land, housing, vehicles), and humiliation, despair, and, in far too many cases, a descent into inescapable poverty.

Taken together, displacement and exit explain why the microcredit model brings little to no net increase in employment. In microcredit-saturated Bosnia, for example, all the early claims of massive job creation were transparently false because evaluators refused to take these issues into account.

Indeed, it is difficult to find any impact evaluations that factor in displacement and exit. In all too many cases, the desire to please the client — typically a microcredit partisan — has won out over any ethical or professional imperative to report reality.

Nonetheless, these obvious shortcomings also help explain why, as even longstanding supporters now acknowledge, there is no empirical evidence showing microcredit cuts poverty. As a rule, it simply boosts the rate of informal microenterprise entry, which is then followed by an equally high rate of displacement and exit, creating nothing more than an unproductive and wasteful local dynamic known as “churn” or “turbulence.”

As Mike Davis writes, artificially stimulating hyper-competition in developing countries’ local markets is not the way out of poverty and human suffering, but an increasingly ugly manifestation of it.

Another indication of the failure of microcredit is that in many developing countries, the poor no longer avail themselves of microloans for business ventures, knowing they will likely either struggle to make money, or else quickly fail. Instead, a growing number use microcredit to pay for much-needed consumption goods.

Borrowers hope to eventually repay the microloan, perhaps through some unexpected financial windfall or a rare spurt of business success. But in practice the poor increasingly take out larger and larger microloans — and very often more than one — simply to cover repayments due on previous microloans, a Ponzi-like dynamic referred to as “loan bicycling.” This in turn has helped push up individual over-indebtedness, which in a growing number of developing countries has reached staggering levels.

Too Many Entrepreneurs

An even more fundamental problem with microcredit stems from its role in securing a long-term “bottom-up” development trajectory. Aware that there’s scant proof that microcredit has a positive short-term effect, many advocates have started insisting we look to the long term — there, they insist, is where microcredit is most effective, supporting the entry and gradual proliferation of micro-entrepreneurs in places where they are desperately needed.

Africa is the most frequently cited example of a region held back by a shortage of entrepreneurs. The international development community, aided by a number of high-profile African economists like Dambisa Moyo, have been at pains to argue that microcredit is desperately needed to create an African entrepreneurial class that can serve as the vanguard of sustainable development.

This argument is almost entirely bogus. As development economist Ha-Joon Chang points out, Africa already has more individual entrepreneurs than perhaps any other place on the planet — and many more are being constantly produced thanks to rafts of new microcredit programs and because Africa’s commercial banks are shifting into microcredit operations.

This glut of micro-entrepreneurs actually hinders long-term development. By generating superfluous “buy cheap, sell dear” trading operations, microcredit effectively precludes the emergence of a more productive, industry-based, and growth-oriented local economic structure. And the intense competition brought on by waves of new informal microenterprises militates against organic growth by better-placed formal enterprises.

The case of South Africa is illustrative. The first post-apartheid African National Congress (ANC) government encouraged the expansion of microcredit and informal microenterprise sectors as an attempt to tackle poverty and unemployment among black South Africans. But the strategy proved disastrous for South Africa’s poor.

A microcredit-driven increase in informal microenterprises in the black townships and rural areas, combined with almost no additional effective demand (due in part to a World Bank austerity program and the ANC’s neoliberal economic policies), helped depress average incomes in the informal economy — around 11 percent annually in real terms from 1997–2003. The self-employment jobs created by the expansion of the informal sector were more than offset by the fall in average informal sector incomes. As a result, poverty spiked.

The microcredit movement thus did nothing more than help plunge large numbers of black South Africans into deeper over-indebtedness, poverty, and insecurity. Meanwhile, a tiny white South African elite has become extremely rich off of supplying microcredit. Not surprisingly, many in South Africa now consider microcredit as analogous to the US’s subprime mortgage crisis, but with even more disturbing overtones of race-based exploitation.

Consider too the situation in Latin America, where since the early 1990s an increasing number of dedicated microcredit institutions and “downscaling” commercial banks have massively expanded the supply of microcredit. The bottom-up, microenterprise-driven miracle that neoliberals like Hernando de Soto long promised is nowhere to be found.

Instead there is growing evidence that channeling Latin America’s scarce financial resources (savings and remittances) into ultra-low-productivity informal microenterprises and self-employment ventures, as well as into consumer loans, has contributed to the progressive destruction of the continent’s economic base.

This negative assessment was even shared by the mainstream Inter-American Development Bank (IDB), which reported in 2010 that the market-driven proliferation of informal microenterprises and self-employment ventures was the principal cause of that continent’s twenty-year (1980–2000) descent into more acute poverty, inequality, and economic weakness. The IDB’s conclusion was unequivocal: “the overwhelming presence of small companies and self-employed workers is a sign of failure, not of success.”

The microcredit-induced expansion of the informal microenterprise sector in developing countries is not one of the solutions to endemic poverty, inequality, low productivity, and general under-development, but one of the chief causes.

Neoliberalizing Microcredit

The final problem with microcredit grew out of the model’s effective neoliberalization in the 1990s.

While Muhammad Yunus and Bangladesh are most commonly associated with microcredit, the model actually first emerged in 1960s Latin America as part of the US government’s attempts to quell anticapitalist social movements and resistance to American imperialism.

The hope was that if enough of the poor could be pacified through self-help and individual entrepreneurship, they would have no need for structural solutions to poverty like an active state, trade unions, welfare systems, or worst of all, socialism.

With the global neoliberal political project in ascendance, however, the microcredit paradigm came under intense pressure to conform to even-narrower operational confines.

Initially structured as NGOs and funded by external sources (by the international donor community, private foundations, or governments), such microcredit institutions were anathema to the new generation of neoliberal policymakers. So under the direction of USAID and the World Bank, the microcredit model was extensively neoliberalized — turned into a for-profit, private sector–driven business model operating according to supposedly ultra-efficient, Wall Street-style incentive structures overseen by “light touch” regulatory bodies.

Egged on by high-profile neoliberals like Maria Otero and Elizabeth Rhyne (both then at ACCION), and Marguerite Robinson (based at Harvard), the claim began to circulate that a “new world” of massive poverty reduction and “bottom-up” development had been midwifed.

However, the neoliberalization of microcredit only succeeded in adding a disastrous new twist to an already-unfolding catastrophe for the poor. Commercialization and deregulation directly, and quite predictably, caused spectacular levels of greed, profiteering, and corruption in the microcredit sector.

Many Western banks and funds opportunistically entered the microcredit business to enrich senior managers (through high salaries and bonuses) and shareholders (high dividends and capital appreciation). In Mexico, for example, even leading microcredit advocates now accept that the major banks and corporations that jumped into the industry all achieved remarkably high returns by pushing poor Mexican women into severe debt.

Then there are the high-profile individual entrepreneurs — often termed “social entrepreneurs” — who have become “microcredit millionaires.” Perhaps the most notorious example is Vikram Akula — former McKinsey consultant, self-described “poverty activist,” and, in 2006, one of Time magazine’s one hundred most influential people.

Akula set up his own microcredit institution and, using a wide variety of manipulative and unethical practices, became one of India’s richest individuals. He was also the leading figure of the “big six” microcredit institutions in India’s Andhra Pradesh state, whose collective greed and reckless growth strategies helped bring the entire microcredit sector to its knees in 2010.

Akula is only the most extreme example, though. Even the leaders of the main microcredit advocacy bodies have joined the feeding frenzy. Rupert Scofield, CEO of the US-based FINCA microcredit advocacy and investor body, rewarded himself in 2013 with a $711,000 paycheck. This at a non-profit body that, while tempering its usurious behavior after increased scrutiny, still charges poor clients interest rates that regularly approach 100 percent.

As Philip Mader documents, the most pronounced dynamic at work in the microcredit industry over the past two decades has been the extraction of a huge amount of money from the poor, in the form of interest payments first passed back to microcredit institutions and then onto investors in developed countries. The global microcredit movement has provided nothing more than a new and, importantly, socially validated mechanism through which financial elites can extract resources from the poor.

To make matters worse, market-driven microcredit is associated with depressingly regular crises and “microcredit meltdowns,” as well as the social and economic chaos that comes from heightened over-indebtedness.

Beginning with a “microcredit meltdown” in Bolivia in 1999 — an event dismissed at the time as a “one-off”— the rot really began in 2009 when microcredit crises broke out in Bosnia, Nicaragua, Pakistan, and Morocco. Bangladesh’s much-vaunted, but massively saturated, microcredit sector only survived its own meltdown in 2009–2010 after behind-the-scenes pressure was exerted on leading individuals and institutions to abandon their breakneck growth strategies and share the market.

Today, many more countries are on the verge of a “microcredit meltdown,” including Mexico, Peru, Cambodia, and, just five years after its unprecedentedly large convulsion, India.

The Sobering Reality

Despite its manifest unworkability, if not its full-blooded destructiveness to long-term development aims and sustainable poverty reduction, the microcredit model remains an icon within the international development community.

Indeed, faced with the collapse of the model under the weight of its own contradictions and failures, the World Bank is undeterred. It remains so enamored of microcredit that it recently began a deeply cynical rescue mission by reclassifying it under an almost entirely fake new agenda — “financial inclusion.”

Under this plan, the extension of microcredit is no longer enough. To be fully included in the financial system — and to supposedly create the conditions for poverty eradication — the global poor urgently need access to micro-savings, micro-insurance, and micro-leasing, as well.

The breathtaking weakness, complete lack of evidence, and obvious cynicism of this new agenda has not stopped it from becoming the new “best practice” in local finance, and infused it with the same passion and commitment that animated the microcredit movement. Predictably, it has already spawned its own set of Yunus-like “faith healers,” like Jeffrey Ashe — the one-time microcredit pioneer who admitted the error of his ways but has now been reborn to lead what he calls “the micro-savings revolution.”

Why is such nonsense and deception tolerated? What is it about microcredit that allows it, despite decades of failure, to be simply rebranded so it can continue to undermine sustainable development and harm the global poor?

The Ideology of Microcredit

The most immediate reason is that microcredit is extremely profitable.

As the case of Banco Compartamos first highlighted — and later confirmed, when in 2013 it paid out €154 million in dividends to its investors — it is possible for external investors to make enormous returns in the microcredit sector. Private commercial banks began to both lend to, and invest in, many of the largest microcredit institutions, and they have reaped spectacular rewards by charging extremely high interest rates.

In Cambodia, for example, the largest and most profitable bank, ACLEDA, which is also a microcredit bank, had investment houses falling over themselves in 2009 when it offered a share of its equity (the business conglomerate Jardine-Matheson Group won out, taking a 12.25 percent stake).

Microfinance’s high “risk-adjusted profitability” also explains why Wall Street’s hedge funds have been moving into the sector since the early 2000s, particularly in countries like India.

With so much relatively easy money on offer to savvy investors, and with the CEOs of the leading microfinance institutions now willing and able to grab a significant share of the profit themselves in the form of huge salaries and bonuses, there’s an obvious incentive to pressure the international development community to keep backing the programs.

This explains the vast resources expended by commercial banks, venture capitalists, hedge funds, and other would-be investors on promoting the microfinance industry. Even high-profile web discussion blogs are now sponsored by the financial sector (for example, the Guardian runs a financial inclusion blog sponsored by Visa).

But profitability is just one half of the explanation for the microcredit model’s widespread support among policymakers, politicians, and ordinary people. The issue of ideology is also central.

Microcredit is supremely attractive to the neoliberal development community and neoliberal politicians. Within these circles criticism of microcredit and the central role that individual entrepreneurship supposedly plays in the development process is simply not tolerated. Instead it is aggressively rebuffed, because such skepticism is, in essence, skepticism of capitalism itself.

This is the reason for the huge PR effort currently being mounted by the World Bank and others — and backed up by a range of like-minded politicians, foundations, and high-profile NGOs in the US and elsewhere — in support of “financial inclusion.” As Mader and Sabrow demonstrate, one of the financial inclusion project’s central goals is to physically rescue high-profile microcredit institutions from (deserved) obsolescence and closure.

The financial inclusion agenda is primarily designed to create the appearance that individual entrepreneurship works as the neoclassical textbooks tell us it does, stifling discussions of left alternatives in developing countries. If this sounds cynical, it is the only sensible interpretation considering the gross misrepresentation of data, the extensive use of cherry-picked case studies, and the muffling of all critical viewpoints that currently characterizes financial inclusion boosterism.

Of course, many well-meaning people and institutions recognize that poverty is not being wiped out, and they genuinely want to do something about it. Donating to a microcredit institution is seen as a simple, effective way to address the persisting scourge.

But by the same token, microcredit validates the belief in the supposed power of US-style individual entrepreneurship and free markets to eradicate poverty. Poor people just need to be entrepreneurs and they will escape immiseration — they don’t need to organize, demonstrate, strike, form a leftist political party, or agitate for radical, structural remedies to their impoverishment.

By mobilizing funds to support micro-lending programs in developing countries, microcredit acts as the perfect medium through which such pro-capitalist ideological foundations and motivations can be formed, nurtured, reinforced, and very practically expressed. Preserving the microcredit model therefore benefits the international development community — it embeds capitalist ideology in successive generations in both developed and developing countries, and it advances the long-running goal of depoliticizing international development.

One example of this depoliticization at work is the hugely popular Kiva, a nonprofit organization founded in 2005 to mobilize loan funding from the rich world — especially from US college students — in order to help poor entrepreneurs in developing countries get started.

Despite using willful deception to attract initial funding and attention — the two founders falsely claimed that Kiva members gave a small loan directly to an individual they chose on the Kiva website, rather than simply to a microcredit institution — the nonprofit has nevertheless flourished by promising donors they can “empower people around the world with a $25 loan.”

However, Kiva’s emphasis on providing small microloans only semi-directly (that is, through microcredit institutions) to micro-entrepreneurs in developing countries has almost nothing to do with actually fighting poverty. The “Kiva experience” is much more about Kiva supporters seeking a form of personal gratification by donating a small sum, as well as validation that their ideology (capitalism) actually works.

As marketing expert Domen Bajde explains, Kiva’s success is based on “entrepreneurial charity” — the comforting notion that savvy entrepreneurs in countries like the US can meaningfully curtail grinding poverty in developing countries by directly supporting micro-entrepreneurs. No need for solidarity movements and active resistance to exploitation and unfair conditions imposed on developing countries — just send a donation to Kiva and the poor can take care of themselves!

A Failed Model’s Future

With microcredit having manifestly failed in terms of promoting sustainable development and reducing poverty, it is difficult to predict what comes next. Many onetime supporters like Hugh Sinclair, and even some globally recognized advocates and institutions like Catholic Relief Services, are abandoning it as unsuccessful. Effectively supporting this decision are a growing number of high-profile US-based academics and previously high-profile advocates, who now concede that the data show microcredit is a flawed antidote to poverty.

One of the most damaging effects of the microcredit movement has been its displacement of more developmentally effective, community-driven local financial institutions — like credit unions, financial cooperatives, and state development banks — from the policy agenda. But in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, and growing awareness of the dangers of microcredit, alternative institutions are making a comeback, particularly in the Global South.

Nevertheless, it seems likely that the microcredit model will endure in some form before it is replaced by the similar, but much broader, financial inclusion agenda. After all, this is what the World Bank wants — and it has support from numerous corners, including powerful global financial institutions and funds.

When the financial inclusion agenda does eclipse microcredit, it will be no cause for celebration. The program suffers from the same pitfall as microfinance: it protects and enriches a narrow global elite, while offloading risk onto the poor themselves.

Democratizing finance in a radical way will require the Left to move beyond the micro-scale, and develop collective, cooperative, and state institutions to promote sustainable development and finally end poverty.

Spamalot / Feel like a boss
« on: December 22, 2016, 02:28:12 AM »
you know that feeling when you have to call the DMV or the tax collector and be on hold, and get transferred thirty times and reexplain why you're calling again and again until someone transfers you to the right place, and then you have to find some number on some document in a pile of thirty identical tomes all written in legalese to provide it, and then answer a bunch more questions from that paperwork and get a bunch of convoluted excuses for why your widget doesn't wiggle the way you wish it would or whatever you're calling about and get a bunch of riddle-like instructions for solving the problem?

Now imagine you're getting charged by the minute to have that call at 11PM slightly intoxicated and in another language and there're thousands of dollars on the line

Studying my dick off at Japanese all last year will have been worth it if this is the only time it ever comes in handy

Spamalot / Red
« on: November 09, 2016, 11:47:56 PM »
Dec 23rd-28th pal

Wish I coulda stayed longer but lemme know if you can swing a porch beer in that interval

Tech Heads / Longshot question about drivers (Maybe?)
« on: November 07, 2016, 03:53:09 PM »
in short I'm trying to find a workaround for a problem I'm having with an animation app called opentoonz on my surface pro II. I basically want to see if there's not some way I can make it ignore my finger and palm and only acknowledge the pen as the brush (or in general, since I imagine that if this is doable at all, then that would be simpler), ideally without having to just shut off touch drivers for the whole tablet whenever I wanna use that program.

I initially misremembered that the sp2 always ignores skin if the stylus is close enough to be tracked, but actually the reason I don't have this problem in PS is that photoshop, although it registers the touch afaict, just will not let your finger be used as any kind of tool, so that if you palm is resting on the canvas it's not gonna mess up what you're trying to draw or erase or whatever with the stylus.

I've perused the github issues pages and the google group for opentoonz discussion but I can't really find any indication that anyone on any kind of setup has had this problem. I dunno if it's just because I'm the only schmuck left on earth trying to use opentoonz on a surface pro from the cretacious period, the answer is just too simple to bother pointing out, or other people are better at drawing with their hand hovering.

Searyx's Board O' Art / Opentoonz
« on: November 03, 2016, 01:59:28 AM »
got all excited about this program (free, open source, used by Studio Ghibli), but on my Surface the touch input from the stylus doesn't override and block touch input from, say, my palm like it does in Photoshop, meaning I essentially can't draw at all on the touch screen.

Can't find a single thing about this problem on their forum or any other, but it's mind bending to think that no one has ever run into the same problem, being that Surfaces are one of the more popular tablets for artists and Opentoonz is such a prominent opensource app for animators


General Discussion / New Adam Curtis documentary
« on: October 26, 2016, 03:42:36 AM »
I like the guy's documentaries but there's something deeply ironic about him making one on the danger of over-simplified political narratives.

This one is a little more scattershot than Century of the Self, Power of Nightmares or even The Trap, and has a bit of the feeling of grandpa Simpson hollering at the clouds when he talks about anything tech related (made me think of that old Anonymous report Fox had back in the day with the van blowing up), but it's still interesting, especially coming around to the end.

The youtube is missing some chunks--I dunno how much because I switched to the bbc stream after the first 15 minutes or so


I never had one--I heard the really popular one people were using to watch Netflix from other countries (Hola?) got dodgy at some point.

But Adam Curtis has a new documentary and all the youtube rips are garbled, so I wanna watch that shit on

General Discussion / Costumes
« on: October 22, 2016, 11:52:49 AM »
anyone dressing up for Halloween? I wasn't gonna, but but now I'm supposed to go to a Halloween party and I feel like I need to hurry up and throw something clever together


I think it was Czer who posted some shit that came up in my newsfeed not long ago about various govts toying with our net infrastructure just to guage what it'd take to actually completely tank in the event of actual conflict. Wonder how long this goes on for before it comes to a head somehow

General Discussion / Feel good article about Storm Front founder's son
« on: October 16, 2016, 01:49:25 PM »
Also the godson of David Duke, former white nationalist talk radio sensation, and coiner of "white genocide."

I was at New College while the parts of this article that take place there played out. Fascinating to know that this was the end result. I never actually met the kid--the other dude in the article, who invited him to Shabbat every week, was a casual friend of mine since we were in a lot of the same math classes, and I never had any idea he was friends with Black. But the article doesn't quite do justice to how much of a to-do there was over this when it was discovered who he was.
The White Flight of Derek Black

Their public conference had been interrupted by a demonstration march and a bomb threat, so the white nationalists decided to meet secretly instead. They slipped past police officers and protesters into a hotel in downtown Memphis. The country had elected its first black president just a few days earlier, and now in November 2008, dozens of the world’s most prominent racists wanted to strategize for the years ahead.

“The fight to restore White America begins now,” their agenda read.

The room was filled in part by former heads of the Ku Klux Klan and prominent neo-Nazis, but one of the keynote speeches had been reserved for a Florida community college student who had just turned 19. Derek Black was already hosting his own radio show. He had launched a white nationalist website for children and won a local political election in Florida. “The leading light of our movement,” was how the conference organizer introduced him, and then Derek stepped to the lectern.

“The way ahead is through politics,” he said. “We can infiltrate. We can take the country back.”

Years before Donald Trump launched a presidential campaign based in part on the politics of race and division, a group of avowed white nationalists was working to make his rise possible by pushing its ideology from the radical fringes ever closer to the far conservative right. Many attendees in Memphis had transformed over their careers from Klansmen to white supremacists to self-described “racial realists,” and Derek Black represented another step in that evolution.

He never used racial slurs. He didn’t advocate violence or lawbreaking. He had won a Republican committee seat in Palm Beach County, Fla., where Trump also had a home, without ever mentioning white nationalism, talking instead about the ravages of political correctness, affirmative action and unchecked Hispanic immigration.

He was not only a leader of racial politics but also a product of them. His father, Don Black, had created Stormfront, the Internet’s first and largest white nationalist site, with 300,000 users and counting. His mother, Chloe, had once been married to David Duke, one of the country’s most infamous racial zealots, and Duke had become Derek’s godfather. They had raised Derek at the forefront of the movement, and some white nationalists had begun calling him “the heir.”

Now Derek spoke in Memphis about the future of their ideology. “The Republican Party has to be either demolished or taken over,” he said. “I’m kind of banking on the Republicans staking their claim as the white party.”

A few people in the audience started to clap, and then a few more began to whistle, and before long the whole group was applauding. “Our moment,” Derek said, because at least in this room there was consensus. They believed white nationalism was about to drive a political revolution. They believed, at least for the moment, that Derek would help lead it.

“Years from now, we will look back on this,” he said. “The great intellectual move to save white people started today.”


Don Black poses for a portrait earlier this month in Crossville, Tenn. Black established the white nationalist website Stormfront, which has grown to more than 300,000 users. (Matt McClain/The Washington Post)

Eight years later, that future they envisioned in Memphis was finally being realized in the presidential election of 2016. Donald Trump was retweeting white supremacists. Hillary Clinton was making speeches about the rise of white hate and quoting David Duke, who had launched his own campaign for the U.S. Senate.

White nationalism had bullied its way toward the very center of American politics, and yet, one of the people who knew the ideology best was no longer anywhere near that center. Derek had just turned 27, and instead of leading the movement, he was trying to untangle himself not only from the national moment but also from a life he no longer understood.

From the very beginning, that life had taken place within the insular world of white nationalism, where there was never any doubt about what whiteness could mean in the United States. Derek had been taught that America was intended as a place for white Europeans and that everyone else would eventually have to leave. He was told to be suspicious of other races, of the U.S. government, of tap water and of pop culture. His parents pulled him out of public school in West Palm Beach at the end of third grade, when they heard his black teacher say the word “ain’t.” By then, Derek was one of only a few white students in a class of mostly Hispanics and Haitians, and his parents decided he would be better off at home.

“It is a shame how many White minds are wasted in that system,” Derek wrote shortly thereafter, on the Stormfront children’s website he built at age 10. “I am no longer attacked by gangs of non whites. I am learning pride in myself, my family and my people.”

Derek Black, at age 9, at a gathering in Jackson, Miss., of the white nationalist Council of Conservative Citizens. He is pictured with then-Mississippi Gov. Kirk Fordice. (Courtesy of Derek Black)

Because he was home-schooled, white nationalism could become a focus of his education. It also meant he had the freedom to begin traveling with his father, who left for several weeks each year to speak at white nationalist conferences in the Deep South. Don Black had grown up in Alabama, where in the 1970s, he joined a group called the White Youth Alliance, led by David Duke, who at the time was married to Chloe. That relationship eventually dissolved, and years later, Don and Chloe reconnected, married and had Derek in 1989. They moved into Chloe’s childhood home in West Palm Beach to raise Derek along with Chloe’s two young daughters. There were Guatemalan immigrants living down the block and Jewish retirees moving into a condo nearby. “Usurpers,” Don sometimes called them, but Chloe didn’t want to move away from her aging mother in Florida, so Don settled for taking long road trips to the whitest parts of the South.

Don and Derek always stayed on those trips with Don’s friends from the white power movement, and soon Derek had heard many of their stories. There was the time his father, then 16, was shot in the chest while working on a segregationist campaign in Georgia. There was the day in 1981 when he and eight other extremists made plans to board a boat stocked with dynamite, automatic weapons and a Nazi flag. Their plan, called Operation Red Dog, was to take over the tiny Caribbean island nation of Dominica, but instead Don had been caught, arrested and sentenced to three years in prison. He learned some computer programming in federal prison and eventually launched Stormfront in 1995 under the motto: “White Pride World Wide.”

Over the years, his website attracted all kinds of extremists: skinheads, militia groups, terrorists and Holocaust deniers. According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, a hate-watch group, a handful of the people who posted on Stormfront had gone on to commit hate crimes, including killings. One message board user shot and wounded three children at a Jewish day-care center in Los Angeles in 1999. Another killed his Jewish neighbor in 2000 in a town near Pittsburgh. “We attract too many sociopaths,” Don posted, and he decided that more moderation would give Stormfront greater mainstream credibility.

By then Stormfront had become his full-time job, even though he wasn’t making much money and the family was getting by on Chloe’s salary as an executive assistant. Each morning, she would go to work, and Don would go to his crowded desk in their single-story house, where he recruited authors and academics from the alternative right to post on his site.

In 2008, he banned slurs, Nazi symbols and threats of violence, even as other parts of his own language remained unchanged. He didn’t have friends so much as “comrades.” Everyone was either “with us” or “against us,” “sympathetic” or an “enemy,” so Derek strengthened his relationship with his father by becoming his greatest ideological ally.

Derek learned Web coding and designed the Stormfront site for children. He was interviewed about hate speech on Nickelodeon, daytime talk shows, HBO and in USA Today. “The devil child,” was how Don sometimes referred to him, with pride and affection.

But Don also read through nasty emails his son received from strangers who were offended by the Stormfront children’s page, and he began to worry about a 13-year-old who was becoming so familiar with the two-way transaction of prejudice and hate.

“You will rot in hell,” read one email, in 2002.

“I WISH you were in the same room as me right now,” read another. “You would have to eat through a straw, you low life scumbag.”

Don told Derek to stop checking his messages. He would later remember wondering: “Did I foist this onto him? Is he just doing this for me?” He asked Derek whether he wanted to shut down the children’s page, but Derek said the emails didn’t bother him. That was the enemy. Who cared what they thought?


Ku Klux Klan grand wizard Don Black, center, at the cross-burning climax of a Klan recruitment rally in 1982. Black would later leave the Klan and begin describing himself as a “white civil rights advocate” or a “racial realist.” (Bettmann Archive)

After that, Don began to see something different when he looked at his son: not just a child born into the movement but also an emerging leader, with drive and conviction that seemed entirely his own. Don had spent more than four decades waiting for whites to have a racial awakening in America, and now he began to think that the teenager living in his house could be a potential catalyst.

“All of my strengths without any of my weaknesses,” Don would later say about Derek back then. “He was smarter than me. He had more insight. He never held himself back.”

So many others in white nationalism had come to their conclusions out of anger and fear, but Derek tended to like most people he met, regardless of race. Instead, he sought out logic and science to confirm his worldview, reading studies from conservative think tanks about biological differences between races, IQ disparities and rates of violent crime committed by blacks against whites. He launched a daily radio show to share his views, and Don paid $275 each week to have it broadcast on the AM station in nearby Lake Worth. On the air, Derek helped popularize the idea of a white genocide, that whites were losing their culture and traditions to massive, nonwhite immigration. “If we say it a thousand times — ‘White genocide! We are losing control of our country!’ — politicians are going to start saying it, too,” he said. He repeated the idea in interviews, Stormfront posts and during his speech at the conference in Memphis, when he was at his most certain.

Derek finished high school, enrolled in community college and ran for a seat on the Republican committee, beating an incumbent with 60 percent of the vote. He decided he wanted to study medieval European history, so he applied to New College of Florida, a top-ranked liberal arts school with a strong history program.

“We want you to make history, not just study it,” Don and Chloe sometimes reminded him.

New College ranked as one of the most liberal schools in the state — “most pot-friendly, most gay-friendly,” Don explained on the radio — and to some white nationalists, it seemed a bizarre choice. Once, on the air, a friend asked Don whether he worried about sending his son to a “hotbed of multiculturalism,” and Don started to laugh.

“If anyone is going to be influenced here, it will be them,” he said. “Soon enough, the whole faculty and student body are going to know who they have in their midst.”


At first they knew nothing about him, and Derek tried to keep it that way. New College was in Sarasota, three hours across the state, and it was the first time Derek had lived away from home. He attended an introductory college meeting about diversity and concluded that the quickest way to be ostracized was to proclaim himself a racist. He decided not to mention white nationalism on campus, at least until he had made some friends.

Most of the other students in his dorm were college freshmen, and as a 21-year-old transfer student, Derek already had a car and a legal ID to buy beer. The qualities that had once made him seem quirky — shoulder-length red hair, the cowboy hat he wore, a passion for medieval re-enactment — made him a good fit for New College, where many of the 800 students were a little bit weird. He forged his own armor and dressed as a knight for Halloween. He watched zombie movies with students from his dorm, a group that included a Peruvian immigrant and an Orthodox Jew.

Maybe they were usurpers, as his father had said, but Derek also kind of liked them, and gradually he went from keeping his convictions quiet to actively disguising them. When another student mentioned that he had been reading about the racist implications of “Lord of the Rings” on a website called Stormfront, Derek pretended he had never heard of it.

Meanwhile, early each weekday morning, he would go outside and call in to his radio show. He told friends these were regular calls home to his parents, and in a way, that was true. Every morning, it was Derek and his father, cued in by music from Merle Haggard’s “I’m a White Boy.” Derek often repeated his belief that whites were being wiped out — “a genocide in our own country,” he said. He told listeners the problem was “massive, nonwhite immigration.” He said Obama was an “anti-white radical.” He said white voters were “just waiting for a politician who actually talks about all the ways whites are being stepped on.” He said it was the “critical fight of our lifetime.” Then he hung up and went back to the dorm to play Taylor Swift songs on his guitar or to take one of the college’s sailboats onto Sarasota Bay.

He left after one semester to study abroad in Germany, because he wanted to learn the language. He kept in touch with New College partly through a student message board, known as the forum, whose updates were automatically sent to his email.

One night in April 2011, Derek noticed a message posted to all students at 1:56 a.m. It was written by someone Derek didn’t know — an upperclassman who had been researching terrorist groups online when he stumbled across a familiar face.

“Have you seen this man?” the message read, and beneath those words was a picture that was unmistakable. The red hair. The cowboy hat.

“Derek black: white supremacist, radio host…new college student???” the post read. “How do we as a community respond?”


Derek Black speaks shortly after his election to the Republican Party’s executive committee in Palm Beach County, Fla. (Richard Graulich/The Palm Beach Post)

By the time Derek returned to campus for the next semester, more than a thousand responses had been written to that post. It was the biggest message thread in the history of a school that Derek now wanted badly to avoid. He returned to Sarasota, applied for permission to live outside of required student housing and rented a room a few miles away.

A few of his friends from the previous year emailed to say they felt betrayed, and strangers sometimes flipped him off from a safe distance on campus. But, for the most part, Derek avoided public spaces, and other students mostly stared or left him alone, even as their speculation about him continued on the forum.

“Maybe he’s trying to get away from a life he didn’t choose.”

“He chooses to be a racist public figure. We choose to call him a racist in public.”

“I just want this guy to die a painful death along with his entire family. Is that too much to ask?”

“I’d like to see Derek Black respond to all of this. …”

Instead of replying, Derek read the forum and used it as motivation to plan a conference for white nationalists in East Tennessee. “Victory through Argumentation: Verbal tactics for anyone white and normal,” he wrote in the invitation. He had spoken at several conferences, including the one in Memphis, but only now did he feel compelled to create another event as white nationalism continued to spread. The white genocide idea he had been championing had finally become a fixture of conservative radio. David Duke had started trying to build a relationship with “our friends and allies in the tea party.” Donald Trump had riveted the alt-right with his investigation into Obama’s birth certificate, and one Gallup poll suggested that only 38 percent of Americans “definitely” believed Obama was born in the United States.

“A critical juncture to keep increasing the profile of our movement,” Derek said on the radio, so he registered 150 attendees and scheduled speeches by his father, Duke and other separatist icons.

Another New College student learned about the conference and posted details on the forum, where gradually a new way of thinking had begun to emerge.

“Ostracizing Derek won’t accomplish anything,” one student wrote.

“We have a chance to be real activists and actually affect one of the leaders of white supremacy in America. This is not an exaggeration. It would be a victory for civil rights.”

“Who’s clever enough to think of something we can do to change this guy’s mind?”

One of Derek’s acquaintances from that first semester decided he might have an idea. He started reading Stormfront and listening to Derek’s radio show. Then, in late September, he sent Derek a text message.

“What are you doing Friday night?” he wrote.


Matthew Stevenson had started hosting weekly Shabbat dinners at his campus apartment shortly after enrolling in New College in 2010. He was the only Orthodox Jew at a school with little Jewish infrastructure, so he began cooking for a small group of students at his apartment each Friday night. Matthew always drank from a kiddush cup and said the traditional prayers, but most of his guests were Christian, atheist, black or Hispanic — anyone open-minded enough to listen to a few blessings in Hebrew. Now, in the fall of 2011, Matthew invited Derek to join them.

Matthew had spent a few weeks debating whether it was a good idea. He and Derek had lived near each other in the dorm, but they hadn’t spoken since Derek was exposed on the forum. Matthew, who almost always wore a yarmulke, had experienced enough anti-Semitism in his life to be familiar with the KKK, David Duke and Stormfront. He went back and read some of Derek’s posts on the site from 2007 and 2008: “Jews are NOT white.” “Jews worm their way into power over our society.” “They must go.”

Matthew decided his best chance to affect Derek’s thinking was not to ignore him or confront him, but simply to include him. “Maybe he’d never spent time with a Jewish person before,” Matthew remembered thinking.

It was the only social invitation Derek had received since returning to campus, so he agreed to go. The Shabbat meals had sometimes included eight or 10 students, but this time only a few showed up. “Let’s try to treat him like anyone else,” Matthew remembered instructing them.

Derek arrived with a bottle of wine. Nobody mentioned white nationalism or the forum, out of respect for Matthew. Derek was quiet and polite, and he came back the next week and then the next, until after a few months, nobody felt all that threatened, and the Shabbat group grew back to its original size.
Matthew Stevenson, left, and Derek Black met at New College, in Sarasota, Fla. Stevenson eventually invited Black to join a diverse group for Shabbat dinners. (Matthew Stevenson photo)

On the rare occasions when Derek directed conversation during those dinners, it was about the particulars of Arabic grammar, or marine aquatics, or the roots of Christianity in medieval times. He came across as smart and curious, and mostly he listened. He heard a Peruvian immigrant tell stories about attending a high school that was 90 percent Hispanic. He asked Matthew about his opinions on Israel and Palestine. They were both still wary of each other: Derek wondered whether Matthew was trying to get him drunk so he would say offensive things that would appear on the forum; Matthew wondered whether Derek was trying to cultivate a Jewish friend to protect himself against charges of anti-Semitism. But they also liked each other, and they started playing pool at a bar near campus.

Some members of the Shabbat group gradually began to ask Derek about his views, and he occasionally clarified them in conversations and emails throughout 2011 and 2012. He said he was pro-choice on abortion. He said he was against the death penalty. He said he didn’t believe in violence or the KKK or Nazism or even white supremacy, which he insisted was different from white nationalism. He wrote in an email that his only concern was that “massive immigration and forced integration” was going to result in a white genocide. He said he believed in the rights of all races but thought each was better off in its own homeland, living separately.

“You have never clarified, Derek,” one of his Shabbat friends wrote to him. “You’ve never said, ‘Hey all, this is what I do believe and this is what I don’t.’ It’s not the job of someone who’s potentially scared/intimidated by someone else to approach that person to see if they are in fact scary/intimidating.”

“I guess I only value the opinions of people I know,” Derek wrote back, and now he was beginning to count his Shabbat friends among those he knew and respected. “You’re naturally right that I deemphasize my own role,” he wrote to them.

He decided early in his final year at New College to finally respond on the forum. He wanted his friends on campus to feel comfortable, even if he still believed some of their homelands were elsewhere. He sat at a coffee shop and began writing his post, softening his ideology with each successive draft. He no longer thought the endpoint of white nationalism was forced deportation for nonwhites, but gradual self-deportation, in which nonwhites would leave on their own. He didn’t believe in self-deportation right now, at least not for his friends, but just eventually, in concept.

“It’s been brought to my attention that people might be scared or intimidated or even feel unsafe here because of things said about me,” he began. “I wanted to try to address these concerns publicly, as they absolutely should not exist. I do not support oppression of anyone because of his or her race, creed, religion, gender, socioeconomic status or anything similar.”

The forum post, intended only for the college, was leaked to the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), which kept a public “Intelligence File” on Derek and other racist leaders, and the group emailed Derek for clarification. Was he disavowing white nationalism? “Your views are now quite different from what many people thought,” the email read.

Derek received the message while vacationing in Europe during winter break. He was staying with Duke, who had started broadcasting his radio show from a part of Europe with lenient free-speech laws. “The tea party is taking some of these ideas mainstream,” Duke said on a broadcast one morning. “Whites are finally coming around to my point of view,” he said another day, and even if Derek now thought some of what Duke said sounded exaggerated or even alarming, the man was still his godfather. Derek wrote back to the SPLC from Duke’s couch.

“Everything I said (on the forum) is true,” he wrote. “I also believe in White Nationalism. My post and my racial ideology are not mutually exclusive concepts.”


Former Ku Klux Klan leader and current U.S. Senate candidate David Duke campaigns in Louisiana. Duke acted as a godfather and a mentor to Derek Black during his rise in white nationalism. (Gerald Herbert/AP)

But the unstated truth was that Derek was becoming more and more confused about exactly what he believed. Sometimes he looked through posts on Stormfront, hoping to reaffirm his ideology, but now the message threads about Obama’s birth certificate or DNA tests for citizenship just seemed bizarre and conspiratorial. He stopped posting on Stormfront. He began inventing excuses to get out of his radio show, leaving his father alone on the air each morning to explain why Derek wouldn’t be calling in. He was preparing for a test. He was giving those liberal professors hell. Except sometimes what Derek was really doing was taking his kayak to the beach, so he could be alone to think.

He had always based his opinions on fact, and lately his logic was being dismantled by emails from his Shabbat friends. They sent him links to studies showing that racial disparities in IQ could largely be explained by extenuating factors like prenatal nutrition and educational opportunities. They gave him scientific papers about the effects of discrimination on blood pressure, job performance and mental health. He read articles about white privilege and the unfair representation of minorities on television news. One friend emailed: “The geNOcide against whites is incredibly, horribly insulting and degrading to real, actual, lived and experienced genocides against Jews, against Rwandans, against Armenians, etc.”

“I don’t hate anyone because of race or religion,” Derek clarified on the forum.

“I am not a white supremacist,” he wrote.

“I don’t believe people of any race, religion or otherwise should have to leave their homes or be segregated or lose any freedom.”

“Derek,” a friend responded. “I feel like you are a representative of a movement you barely buy into. You need to identify with more than 1/50th of a belief system to consider it your belief system.”

He was taking classes in Jewish scripture and German multiculturalism during his last year at New College, but most of his research was focused on medieval Europe. He learned that Western Europe had begun not as a great society of genetically superior people but as a technologically backward place that lagged behind Islamic culture. He studied the 8th century to the 12th century, trying to trace back the modern concepts of race and whiteness, but he couldn’t find them anywhere. “We basically just invented it,” he concluded.

“Get out of this,” one of his Shabbat friends emailed a few weeks after Derek’s graduation in May 2013, urging Derek to publicly disavow white nationalism. “Get out before it ruins some part of your future more than it already irreparably has.”

Derek stayed near campus to housesit for a professor after graduation, and he began to consider making a public statement. He knew he no longer believed in white nationalism, and he had made plans to distance himself from his past by changing part of his name and moving across the country for graduate school. His instinct was to slip away quietly, but his advocacy had always been public — a legacy of radio shows, Internet posts, TV appearances, and an annual conference on racial tactics.

He was still considering what to do when he returned home to visit his parents later that summer. His father was tracking the rise of white nationalism on cable TV, and his parents were talking about “enemies” and “comrades” in the “ongoing war,” but now it sounded ridiculous to Derek. He spent the day rebuilding windows with them, which was one of Derek’s quirky hobbies that his parents had always supported. They had bought his guitar and joined in his medieval re-enactments. They had paid his tuition at the liberal arts college where he had Shabbat dinners. They had taught him, most of all, to be independent and ideological, and to speak his beliefs even when doing so resulted in backlash.

He left the house that night and went to a bar. He took out his computer and began writing a statement.

“A large section of the community I grew up in believes strongly in white nationalism, and members of my family whom I respect greatly, particularly my father, have long been resolute advocates for that cause. I was not prepared to risk driving a wedge in those relationships.

“After a great deal of thought since then, I have resolved that it is in the best interests of everyone involved to be honest about my slow but steady disaffiliation from white nationalism. I can’t support a movement that tells me I can’t be a friend to whomever I wish or that other people’s races require me to think of them in a certain way or be suspicious at their advancements.

“The things I have said as well as my actions have been harmful to people of color, people of Jewish descent, activists striving for opportunity and fairness for all. I am sorry for the damage done.”

He continued to write for several more paragraphs before addressing an email to the SPLC, the group his father had considered a primary adversary for 40 years.

“Publish in full,” Derek instructed. Then he attached the letter and hit “send.”


Don Black poses for a portrait at a park Oct. 2, 2016, in Crossville, Tenn. (Matt McClain/The Washington Post)

Don was at the computer the next afternoon searching Google when Derek’s name popped up in a headline on his screen. For a decade, Don had been typing “Stormfront” and “Derek Black” into the search bar a few times each week to track his son’s public rise in white nationalism. This particular story had been published by the SPLC, which Don had always referred to as the “Poverty Palace.”

“Activist Son of Key Racist Leader Renounces White Nationalism,” it read, and Don began to read the letter. It had phrases like “structural oppression,” “privilege,” “limited opportunity,” and “marginalized groups” — the kind of liberal-apologist language Don and Derek had often made fun of on the radio.

“You got hacked,” Don remembered telling Derek, once he reached him on the phone.

“It’s real,” Derek said, and then he heard the sound of his father hanging up.

For the next few hours, Don was in disbelief. Maybe Derek was pulling a prank on him. Maybe he still believed in white nationalism but just wanted an easier life.

Derek called back, and this time his mother answered. She said that she didn’t want to speak to him. She handed the phone to Don, and his voice was shaky and tearful. Derek had never heard him that way. “I can’t talk,” Don said, and he hung up again.

Later that night, Don logged on to the Stormfront message board. “I’m sure this will be all over the Net and our local media, so I’ll start here,” he wrote, posting a link to Derek’s letter. “I don’t want to talk to him. He says he doesn’t understand why we’d feel betrayed just because he announced his ‘personal beliefs’ to our worst enemies.”

For the next several days, Don couldn’t bring himself to post anything more. “I was a little depressed anyway, but at that point I wanted to quit everything,” he said later, remembering that time. “What’s the point? I didn’t do much of anything for probably 10 days. It was the worst event of my adult life.”

He logged back onto Stormfront a week later. “After a miserable seven days, I feel the need to vent,” he wrote. “I only know what Derek tells me, which has been baffling. I’ve decided he really believes this crap. Derek repeated his belief that family ties are separate from politics. I said that obviously wasn’t true with a family centered around political activism.”

Hundreds of posts quickly followed. Some offered Don condolences. Others said that Derek was a traitor or that Don could no longer be trusted, either. Don wrote a few posts in response, sometimes defending Derek and other times distancing himself, until after a few weeks it all hurt too much.

“I’m closing this thread,” Don wrote, finally, describing it as an “open wound.”


Derek returned home a few weeks later for his father’s birthday, even though his mother and his half-sisters had asked him not to come. “I think I might be getting disowned,” Derek had written to one college friend. But he was about to leave Florida for graduate school, and he wanted to say goodbye.

He arrived at his grandmother’s house for the party, and he would later remember how strange it felt when his half-sisters would barely acknowledge him. His mother was polite but cold. Don tried to invite Derek inside, but the rest of the family wanted him to leave. “I got uninvited to my own party,” Don later remembered. “They said if I wanted to see him, we both had to go.”

They left and went for a drive, first to the beach and then to a restaurant, where they sat at a booth near the back. Derek still had his dry sense of humor. He still made smart observations about politics and history. “Same old Derek,” Don concluded, after a few hours, and that fact surprised him. His grief had been so profound that he’d expected some physical manifestation of the loss. Instead, he found himself forgetting for several minutes at a time that Derek was now “living on the other side.”

Don asked Derek about the theories that had emerged on the Stormfront message thread. Was he just faking a change to have an easier career? Was this his way of rebelling?

When Derek denied those things, Don mentioned the theory he himself had come to believe — the one David Duke had posited in the first hours after Derek’s letter went public: Stockholm syndrome. Derek had become a hostage to liberal academia and then experienced empathy for his captors.

“That’s so patronizing,” Derek remembered saying. “How can I prove this is what I really believe?”

He tried to convince Don for a few hours at the restaurant. He told him about white privilege and repeated the scientific studies about institutionalized racism. He mentioned the great Islamic societies that had developed algebra and predicted a lunar eclipse. He said that now, as he recognized strains of white nationalism spreading into mainstream politics, he felt accountable. “It’s not just that I was wrong. It’s that it caused real damage,” he remembered saying.

“I can’t believe I’m arguing with you, of all people, about racial realities,” Don remembered telling him.

The restaurant was closing, and they were no closer to an understanding. Derek went to sleep at his grandmother’s house. Then he woke up early and started driving across the country alone.


Derek Black is pictured Sept. 25, 2016. “It’s scary to know that I helped spread this stuff, and now it’s out there,” he told a friend, alluding to the ideology he once promoted. (Matt McClain/The Washington Post)

Every day since then, Derek had been working to put distance between himself and his past. He was still living across the country after finishing his master’s degree, and he was starting to learn Arabic to be able to study the history of early Islam. He hadn’t spoken to anyone in white nationalism since his defection, aside from occasional calls home to his parents. Instead, he’d spent his time catching up on aspects of pop culture he’d once been taught to discredit: liberal newspaper columns, rap music and Hollywood movies. He’d come to admire President Obama. He decided to trust the U.S. government. He started drinking tap water. He had taken budget trips to Barcelona, Paris, Dublin, Nicaragua and Morocco, immersing himself in as many cultures as he could.

He joined a new online message group, this one for couch surfers, and he opened up his one-bedroom apartment to strangers looking for a temporary place to stay. It felt increasingly good to trust people — to try to interact without prejudice or judgment — and after a while, Derek began to feel detached from the person he had been.

But then came the election campaign of 2016, and suddenly the white nationalism Derek had been trying to unlearn was the unavoidable subtext to national debates over refugees, immigration, Black Lives Matter and the election itself. Late in August, Derek watched in his apartment as Hillary Clinton gave a major speech about the rise of racism. She explained how white supremacists had rebranded themselves as white nationalists. She referenced Duke and mentioned the concept of a “white genocide,” which Derek had once helped popularize. She talked about how Trump had hired a campaign manager with ties to the alt-right. She said: “A fringe movement has essentially taken over the Republican Party.”

It was the very same point Derek had spent so much of his life believing in, but now it made him feel both fearful for the country and implicated. “It’s scary to know that I helped spread this stuff, and now it’s out there,” he told one of his Shabbat friends.

He also wondered whether he would ever be able to completely detach himself from his past, when so much about it remained public. He was still occasionally recognized as a former racist in graduate school; still written into the will of a man he had befriended through white nationalism; still the godson of Duke; still the son of Chloe and Don.

Late this summer, for the first time in years, he traveled to Florida to see them. At a time of increasingly contentious rhetoric, he wanted to hear what his father had to say. They sat in the house and talked about graduate school and Don’s new German shepherd. But after a while, their conversation turned back to ideology, the topic they had always preferred.

Don, who usually didn’t vote, said he was going to support Trump.

Derek said he had taken an online political quiz, and his views aligned 97 percent with Hillary Clinton’s.

Don said immigration restrictions sounded like a good start.

Derek said he actually believed in more immigration, because he had been studying the social and economic benefits of diversity.

Don thought that would result in a white genocide.

Derek thought race was a false concept anyway.

They sat across from each other, searching for ways to bridge the divide. The bay was one block away. Just across from there was Mar-a-Lago, where Trump had lived and vacationed for so many years, once installing an 80-foot pole for a gigantic American flag.

“Who would have thought he’d be the one to take it mainstream?” Don said, and in a moment of so much division, it was the one point on which they agreed.

TLDR, dude was a white nationalist celebrity doing routine talk-show spots advancing the idea of "white genocide" by immigration and race-mixing, but going to New College and getting treated like a human by (a fairly small number of) students there caused him to come around and renounce all that stuff.

The push on the NCF forum to get the kid expellei was pretty strong initially--understandably, since he was still doing the radio show at that time and was (t least publicly) completely unrepentant at that time--and it limped along to some extent pretty much until he graduated two years later. Looks like it was a good thing they didn't succeed, in the end. Kinda gotta wonder if the dude's not gonna wind up shot by a zealot or something, though.

Side note: I wish the media would stop legitimating various far-right movements' rebranding of themselves as the "alt-right." White nationalism is white nationalism. It maybe makes sense to have a word for the Milo Yiannopolises and other internet-troll-warrior rightists out there since they--at least conceivably--to some extent represent a new and distinct political trend, but letting run of the mill fascists and or racists co-opt the term in order to give themselves appeal to the hipster generation is irresponsible.

General Discussion / Hydroelectric dams create gigatons of methane
« on: September 29, 2016, 11:29:57 PM »

Some great news to accompany our permanent crossing of the CO2 threshold

General Discussion / Incorporating?
« on: September 19, 2016, 04:17:49 PM »
So I was having a drunk conversation with another JET alum who works for himself the other night, and it came up that if I plan to make a fair amount of my total income from private tutoring then it probably would be a good idea to incorporate an LLC and pay myself through it for tax/proof of income purposes.

Seems reasonable, but I don't really know anything about it. I get the impression that I don't necessarily need to incorporate where I'm living or even where most of my business is being done, and that there may be advantages to incorporating in one state vs another state.

Anyone know anything about this stuff/have any general advice?

Spamalot / Agrul (dumb math q)
« on: September 01, 2016, 03:22:55 PM »
Trying to get a quick overview of homotopy theory to read this paper on applications of topology to data analysis my former professor recommended to me and ran across this problem that doesn't make sense to me. I know topology isn't your main squeeze but this is like chapter one algebraic topology/late chapter complex analysis stuff so it's probably not totally alien to you:

For spaces X,Y let [X,Y] be the collection of homotopy equivalence classes of functions from X into Y. Let I=[0,1]

Show that if Y is path connected then [I,Y] contains a simple element

Like, I can see where this is going, but that's gotta be wrong, no? Let Y=R2-{(0,0)}, let h be the function mapping I onto the unit circle with h(0)=h(1)=(0,1), and let g: I->Y be g(x):=(0,1)

g and h are clearly not homotopic--isn't this the whole point of homotopy theory? Am I missing something?

Spamalot / Saw Ice Cube, saw Ween. V happy
« on: August 29, 2016, 01:46:22 AM »
Cube was closing down he night last on get so I was kinda hanging back like "eh, I wanna et home tonight and it's a rap show so up front ain't worth it"
And hen Ice Cube came out and I just immediately thought, "shit, wait, it's fucking Ice Cube" and plowed on up. Soundedbfuckig great. DJ Ren also showed up for some NWA stuff, and they did some WSC shit of.

Ween was fucking siiick.

Not really anything surprising to say about that, but the crowd was super nice and I hing around for a second when ppl were starting to split an caught me a drumstick

God I fucking love Ween

(One post)

Spamalot / One post a day
« on: August 22, 2016, 01:41:00 AM »
For just one post a day, you can help make TZT not suck total shit

As an added bonus we'll throw in a little niceness for your postcount

General Discussion / Justice Dept to end use of private prisons
« on: August 18, 2016, 03:00:02 PM »
After concluding that (big surprise) they are less safe for both inmates and officers and don't save much money

General Discussion / 100% clean energy couldn't save us
« on: July 20, 2016, 12:31:43 AM »

Earlier this year media outlets around the world announced that February had broken global temperature records by a shocking amount. March broke all the records, too. In June our screens were covered with surreal images of Paris flooding, the Seine bursting its banks and flowing into the streets. In London, the floods sent water pouring into the tube system right in the heart of Covent Garden. Roads in south-east London became rivers two metres deep.

With such extreme events becoming more commonplace, few deny climate change any longer. Finally, a consensus is crystallising around one all-important fact: fossil fuels are killing us. We need to switch to clean energy, and fast.

This growing awareness about the dangers of fossil fuels represents a crucial shift in our consciousness. But I can’t help but fear we’ve missed the point. As important as clean energy might be, the science is clear: it won’t save us from climate change.

What would we do with 100% clean energy? Exactly what we’re doing with fossil fuels
Let’s imagine, just for argument’s sake, that we are able to get off fossil fuels and switch to 100% clean energy. There is no question this would be a vital step in the right direction, but even this best-case scenario wouldn’t be enough to avert climate catastrophe.

Why? Because the burning of fossil fuels only accounts for about 70% of all anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions. The remaining 30% comes from a number of causes. Deforestation is a big one. So is industrial agriculture, which degrades the soils to the point where they leach CO2. Then there’s industrial livestock farming which produces 90m tonnes of methane per year and most of the world’s anthropogenic nitrous oxide. Both of these gases are vastly more potent than CO2 when it comes to global warming. Livestock farming alone contributes more to global warming than all the cars, trains, planes and ships in the world. Industrial production of cement, steel, and plastic forms another major source of greenhouse gases, and then there are our landfills, which pump out huge amounts of methane – 16% of the world’s total.

When it comes to climate change, the problem is not just the type of energy we are using, it’s what we’re doing with it. What would we do with 100% clean energy? Exactly what we are doing with fossil fuels: raze more forests, build more meat farms, expand industrial agriculture, produce more cement, and fill more landfill sites, all of which will pump deadly amounts of greenhouse gas into the air. We will do these things because our economic system demands endless compound growth, and for some reason we have not thought to question this.

Think of it this way. That 30% chunk of greenhouse gases that comes from non-fossil fuel sources isn’t static. It is adding more to the atmosphere each year. Scientists project that our tropical forests will be completely destroyed by 2050, releasing a 200bn tonne carbon bomb into the air. The world’s topsoils could be depleted within just 60 years, releasing more still. Emissions from the cement industry are growing at more than 9% per year. And our landfills are multiplying at an eye-watering pace: the by 2100 we will be producing 11m tonnes of solid waste per day, three times more than we do now. Switching to clean energy will do nothing to slow this down.

If we keep growing at 3% a year, that means that every 20 years we need to double the size of the global economy
The climate movement made an enormous mistake. We focused all our attention on fossil fuels, when we should have been pointing to something much deeper: the basic logic of our economic operating system. After all, we’re only using fossil fuels in the first place to fuel the broader imperative of GDP growth.

The root problem is the fact that our economic system demands ever-increasing levels of extraction, production and consumption. Our politicians tell us that we need to keep the global economy growing at more than 3% each year – the minimum necessary for large firms to make aggregate profits. That means every 20 years we need to double the size of the global economy – double the cars, double the fishing, double the mining, double the McFlurries and double the iPads. And then double them again over the next 20 years from their already doubled state.

Our more optimistic pundits claim that technological innovations will help us to decouple economic growth from material throughput. But sadly there is no evidence that this is happening. Global material extraction and consumption has grown by 94% since 1980, and is still going up. Current projections show that by 2040 we will more than double the world’s shipping miles, air miles, and trucking miles – along with all the material stuff that those vehicles transport – almost exactly in keeping with the rate of GDP growth.

Clean energy, important as it is, won’t save us from this nightmare. But rethinking our economic system might. GDP growth has been sold to us as the only way to create a better world. But we now have robust evidence that it doesn’t make us any happier, it doesn’t reduce poverty, and its “externalities” produce all sorts of social ills: debt, overwork, inequality, and climate change. We need to abandon GDP growth as our primary measure of progress, and we need to do this immediately – as part and parcel of the climate agreement that will be ratified in Morocco later this year.

It’s time to pour our creative power into imagining a new global economy – one that maximises human wellbeing while actively shrinking our ecological footprint. This is not an impossible task. A number of countries have already managed to achieve high levels of human development with very low levels of consumption. In fact Daniel O’Neill, an economist at the University of Leeds, has demonstrated that even material de-growth is not incompatible with high levels of human well-being.

Our focus on fossil fuels has lulled us into thinking we can continue with the status quo so long as we switch to clean energy, but this is a dangerously simplistic assumption. If we want to stave off the coming crisis, we need to confront its underlying cause.

This week, heads of state are gathering in New York to sign the UN’s new sustainable development goals (SDGs). The main objective is to eradicate poverty by 2030. Beyoncé, One Direction and Malala are on board. It’s set to be a monumental international celebration.

Given all the fanfare, one might think the SDGs are about to offer a fresh plan for how to save the world, but beneath all the hype, it’s business as usual. The main strategy for eradicating poverty is the same: growth.

Growth has been the main object of development for the past 70 years, despite the fact that it’s not working. Since 1980, the global economy has grown by 380%, but the number of people living in poverty on less than $5 (£3.20) a day has increased by more than 1.1 billion. That’s 17 times the population of Britain. So much for the trickle-down effect.

Orthodox economists insist that all we need is yet more growth. More progressive types tell us that we need to shift some of the yields of growth from the richer segments of the population to the poorer ones, evening things out a bit. Neither approach is adequate. Why? Because even at current levels of average global consumption, we’re overshooting our planet’s bio-capacity by more than 50% each year.

In other words, growth isn’t an option any more – we’ve already grown too much. Scientists are now telling us that we’re blowing past planetary boundaries at breakneck speed. And the hard truth is that this global crisis is due almost entirely to overconsumption in rich countries.

Instead of pushing poor countries to 'catch up' with rich ones, we should be getting rich countries to 'catch down'
Right now, our planet only has enough resources for each of us to consume 1.8 “global hectares” annually – a standardised unit that measures resource use and waste. This figure is roughly what the average person in Ghana or Guatemala consumes. By contrast, people in the US and Canada consume about 8 hectares per person, while Europeans consume 4.7 hectares – many times their fair share.

What does this mean for our theory of development? Economist Peter Edward argues that instead of pushing poorer countries to “catch up” with rich ones, we should be thinking of ways to get rich countries to “catch down” to more appropriate levels of development. We should look at societies where people live long and happy lives at relatively low levels of income and consumption not as basket cases that need to be developed towards western models, but as exemplars of efficient living.

How much do we really need to live long and happy lives? In the US, life expectancy is 79 years and GDP per capita is $53,000. But many countries have achieved similar life expectancy with a mere fraction of this income. Cuba has a comparable life expectancy to the US and one of the highest literacy rates in the world with GDP per capita of only $6,000 and consumption of only 1.9 hectares – right at the threshold of ecological sustainability. Similar claims can be made of Peru, Ecuador, Honduras, Nicaragua and Tunisia.

Yes, some of the excess income and consumption we see in the rich world yields improvements in quality of life that are not captured by life expectancy, or even literacy rates. But even if we look at measures of overall happiness and wellbeing in addition to life expectancy, a number of low- and middle-income countries rank highly. Costa Rica manages to sustain one of the highest happiness indicators and life expectancies in the world with a per capita income one-fourth that of the US.

In light of this, perhaps we should regard such countries not as underdeveloped, but rather as appropriately developed. And maybe we need to start calling on rich countries to justify their excesses.

70% of people in middle- and high-income countries believe overconsumption is putting our planet and society at risk
The idea of “de-developing” rich countries might prove to be a strong rallying cry in the global south, but it will be tricky to sell to westerners. Tricky, but not impossible. According to recent consumer research, 70% of people in middle- and high-income countries believe overconsumption is putting our planet and society at risk. A similar majority also believe we should strive to buy and own less, and that doing so would not compromise our happiness. People sense there is something wrong with the dominant model of economic progress and they are hungry for an alternative narrative.

The problem is that the pundits promoting this kind of transition are using the wrong language. They use terms such as de-growth, zero growth or – worst of all – de-development, which are technically accurate but off-putting for anyone who’s not already on board. Such terms are repulsive because they run against the deepest frames we use to think about human progress, and, indeed, the purpose of life itself. It’s like asking people to stop moving positively thorough life, to stop learning, improving, growing.

Negative formulations won’t get us anywhere. The idea of “steady-state” economics is a step in the right direction and is growing in popularity, but it still doesn’t get the framing right. We need to reorient ourselves toward a positive future, a truer form of progress. One that is geared toward quality instead of quantity. One that is more sophisticated than just accumulating ever increasing amounts of stuff, which doesn’t make anyone happier anyway. What is certain is that GDP as a measure is not going to get us there and we need to get rid of it.

Perhaps we might take a cue from Latin Americans, who are organising alternative visions around the indigenous concept of buen vivir, or good living. The west has its own tradition of reflection on the good life and it’s time we revive it. Robert and Edward Skidelsky take us down this road in his book How Much is Enough? where they lay out the possibility of interventions such as banning advertising, a shorter working week and a basic income, all of which would improve our lives while reducing consumption.

Either we slow down voluntarily or climate change will do it for us. We can’t go on ignoring the laws of nature. But rethinking our theory of progress is not only an ecological imperative, it is also a development one. If we do not act soon, all our hard-won gains against poverty will evaporate, as food systems collapse and mass famine re-emerges to an extent not seen since the 19th century.

This is not about giving anything up. And it’s certainly not about living a life of voluntary misery or imposing harsh limits on human potential. On the contrary, it’s about reaching a higher level of understanding and consciousness about what we’re doing here and why.

Obviously a bit pie-in-the-sky (it's one thing to point out that people in Costa Rica are happy and another thing entirely to propose convincing the developed world to revert by that much--Costa Rica sounds like a bit of a shithole based on what I've heard from friends who've gone there), but at the same time the conclusions seem almost incontrovertible on an intuitive level (ie that whether we're willing to give it up or not, the planet literally won't continue to support infinite growth).

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