Mortgage Housing Follies


Some of us have been sounding this alarm for about 18 years, since the time the Greenspan Fed inflated the housing markets across the board by keeping interest rates too low. Since the inevitable crash in 2008, financial housing policy has doubled and tripled down on this folly to the point where in many areas of the country most homeowners live in houses they could never afford if they had to buy them again.

Recovery in any housing market requires housing prices to find fundamental value by shoring markets up at the margin, helping people who can’t afford their house, and never could, to sell to those who do have the necessary resources. And that doesn’t mean reflating private equity portfolios to become the new landlords of residential housing. Nor does it mean buying up mortgages at full value and then selling them at a deep discount to investors. Bad investments require taking losses and if necessary, going bankrupt.

Widespread housing and land ownership are the foundation of the middle class, and we’re quickly destroying it. We are experiencing Einstein’s definition of insanity.

The Bailout Miscalculation That Could Crash the Economy

When Donald Trump signed the $2 trillion CARES Act rescue on March 27, there was immediate praise across the political spectrum for section 4022, concerning homeowners in distress. Under the rule, anyone with a federally-backed mortgage could now receive instant relief.

Forbearance, the law said:

…shall be granted for up to 180 days, and shall be extended for an additional period of up to 180 days at the request of the borrower.

Essentially, anyone with a federally-backed mortgage was now eligible for a six-month break from home payments. Really it was a year, given that a 180-day extension could be granted “at the request of the borrower.”

It made sense. The burden of having to continue to make home payments during the coronavirus crisis would be crushing for the millions of people put out of work.

If anything, the measure didn’t go far enough, only covering homeowners with federally-backed (a.k.a. “agency”) mortgages. Still, six months or a year of relief from mortgage payments was arguably the most valuable up-front benefit of the entire bailout for ordinary people.

Unfortunately, this portion of the CARES Act was conceived so badly that it birthed a potentially disastrous new issue that could have severe systemic ramifications. “Whoever wrote this bill didn’t have the faintest fucking clue how mortgages work,” is how one financial analyst put it to me.

When homeowners take out mortgages, loans are bundled into pools and turned into securities, which are then sold off to investors, often big institutional players like pension funds.

Once loans are pooled and sold off as securities, the job of collecting home payments from actual people and delivering them to investors in mortgage bonds goes to companies called mortgage servicers. Many of these firms are not banks, and have familiar names like Quicken Loans or Freedom Mortgage.

The mortgage servicing business is relatively uncomplicated – companies are collecting money from one group of people and handing it to another, for a fee – but these infamously sleazy firms still regularly manage to screw it up.

“An industry that is just… not very good,” is the generous description of Richard Cordray, former head of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.

Because margins in the mortgage service business are relatively small, these firms try to automate as much as possible. Many use outdated computers and have threadbare staffing policies.

Essentially, they make their money collecting in good economic times from the less complicated homeowner accounts, taking electronic payments and paying little personal attention to loan-holders with issues.

They rely on lines of short-term financing from banks and tend to be cash-poor and almost incompetent by design. If you’ve ever tried to call your servicer (if you even know who it is) and failed to get someone on the phone, that’s no accident — unless you’re paying, these firms don’t much want to hear from you, and they certainly don’t want to pay extra to do it.

Last year, the Financial Stability Oversight Council (FSOC), which includes the heads of the Treasury, the Commodity Futures Trading Commission, the Fed, the aforementioned CFPB and others issued a report claiming mortgage service firms were a systemic threat, because they “rely heavily on short-term funding sources and generally have relatively limited resources to absorb financial shocks.”

For Cordray, who has a book out called Watchdog that chronicles his time heading the CFPB, the worry about mortgage servicers was serious.

“Nonbanks are very thinly capitalized,” he says. “They haven’t been very responsible in building up capital buffers.”

Enter the coronavirus. Even if homeowners themselves weren’t required to make payments under the CARES Act, servicers like Quicken and Freedom still had to keep paying the bondholders every month.

It might be reasonable to expect a big bank like Wells Fargo or JP Morgan Chase to front six months’ worth of principal and interest payments for millions of borrowers. But these cardboard fly-by-night servicer firms – overgrown collection agencies – don’t have that kind of cash.

How did the worst of these firms react to being told they suddenly had to cover up to a year of home payments? About as you’d expect, by trying to bully homeowners.

Soon after the passage of the CARES Act, reporters like Lisa Epstein at Capitol Forum and David Dayen at the American Prospect started hearing stories that servicers were trying to trick customers into skipping the forbearance program. As David wrote a few weeks ago:

I started hearing from borrowers that they were being told that they could apply for three months forbearance (a deferment of their loan payment), but would have to pay all three months back at the end of the period…

It soon came out that many servicers were telling homeowners that even if they thought they were getting a bailout break, they would still have to make it all up in one balloon payment at the end of the deferral period. This was a straight-out lie, but the motivation was obvious. “They’re trying to get people to pay any way they can,” is how Cordray puts it.

Dayen cited Amerihome Mortgage and Wells Fargo, but other names also started to be associated with the practice. Social media began to fill up with stories from people claiming firms like Mr. CooperBank of America and others were telling them they had to be prepared to make big balloon payments.

Same with the CFPB’s complaint database, which began to be filled with comments like the following, about a firm called NewRez LLC:

If you have 4 months of mortgage payments laying around at the end of the COVID-19 pandemic you will be fine if not good buy [sic] to your house. I understand its a business and they will make a lot of money with I’m sure a government bailout and lots of foreclosures from not helping any american home buyers…

Suddenly regulators and politicians alike were faced with a double-edged dilemma. On the one hand, the poorly-designed CARES Act placed servicers in genuine peril, an issue that left unfixed might break the mortgage markets – not a fun experience for America, as we learned in 2008.

The obvious solution was to use some of the apparently limitless funding ammunition in the Federal Reserve to help servicers maintain their responsibilities. The problem was the firms that needed such help the most were openly swindling homeowners. If there’s such a thing as regulatory blackmail, this was it.

Should the Fed open its war chest and create a “liquidity facility” to help mortgage servicers? If so, how could this be done in a way that didn’t put homeowners at more risk of being burned in some other way?

“This is the script of a heist flick, where homeowners get screwed in the end while servicers get the money,” says Carter Dougherty of Americans for Financial Reform. “If you combine money for servicers with strong consumer protections and a vigorous regulator, then the film could have a happy ending. But I’m not holding my breath.”

In early April, a group of Senators led by Virginia’s Mark Warner sent a letter that pleaded with Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin to use some of the $455 billion economic stabilization fund to solve the problem. The letter included a passage that essentially says, “We know these companies suck, but there’s no choice but to bail them out”:

While we understand that some nonbank lenders may have adopted practices that made them particularly susceptible to constraints on their liquidity during a severe downturn, imposing a broad liquidity shock to the entire servicing sector is not the way to go about reform…

The Senators put the problem in perspective, noting that as much as $100 billion in payments might be forborne under the CARES Act. This was a major hit to an industry that last year “had total net profits of less than $10 billion.”

The CARES Act was written in March with such speed that it became law before anyone even had a chance to catch, say, a $90 billion-sized hole in the bailout’s reasoning. Still, when the forbearances began and it started to look like the servicers might fail, there was talk among regulators and members of congress alike of letting failures happen, to teach the idiots a lesson.

But ultimately the Senators on the letter (including also Tim Kaine, Bob Menendez and Jerry Moran) decided this would ultimately be counterproductive, i.e. letting the economy collapse might be an unacceptably high price for the sending of a message to a handful of dirtbag companies.

“The focus now should not be on longer-term reform, but on ensuring that the crisis now unfolding does as little damage to the economy as possible,” is how the letter put it.

Although the letter essentially urged the creation of a new Fed bailout facility to contain the mortgage-servicer ick, that didn’t happen, even after mortgage servicers stepped up lobbying campaigns. In mid-April, a string of news stories appeared in which servicers warned reporters of snowballing market terror – as the New York Times put it, the “strain is expected to intensify” – that would only be solved with a bailout.

No dice. In a repeat of the often-halting, often illogical responses to mushrooming crises of 2008, the first pass at a solution came in the form of a move by the Federal Housing Finance Agency (FHFA), the overseer of Fannie and Freddie.

On April 21, FHFA announced they were coming to the rescue: servicers would no longer need to come up with six months of payments. From now on, it would only be four:

Today’s instruction establishes a four-month advance obligation limit for Fannie Mae scheduled servicing for loans and servicers which is consistent with the current policy at Freddie Mac.

Which was fine, except for one thing: from the standpoint of most of these woefully undercapitalized servicing firms, having to cover four months of payments is not a whole lot easier than covering six. “It still might as well be ten years for these guys,” is how one analyst put it.

Absent an intervention from the Fed, a bunch of these servicing firms will go bust. There will be chaos if even a few disappear. As we found out in 2008, homeowners facing servicer disruptions can immediately be confronted with all sorts of problems, from taxes going unpaid to payments vanishing to incorrect foreclosure proceedings taking place. Such problems can take years to resolve. Service issues helped seriously prolong the last crisis, as I wrote about in 2010.

Also, if your servicer disappears, someone still has to do the grunt work of managing your loan. To make sure your home payments are collected and moved to the right place, some entity will have to acquire what are known as the Mortgage Servicing Rights (MSRs) to your loan.

But MSRs have almost no value in a battered economy, which means it’s likely no big company like a bank will be interested in acquiring them in the event of mass failures, absent some kind of inducement. “They’re not going to want that grief,” is how one hill staffer puts it.

A third problem is that if some of these nonbank servicers go kablooey, a likely scenario would involve their businesses being swallowed up by big banks, perhaps with the aid of incentives tossed in from yet another bailout package.

This would again mirror 2008, in that a regulatory response would worsen the hyper-concentration problem and make big, systemically dangerous banks bigger and more dangerous, again.

As Dougherty says, the simplest solution would be opening a Fed facility to contain the servicer disaster, coupling aid with new measures designed to a) force servicers to keep more money on hand for a rainy day and b) stop screwing homeowners.

But the more likely scenario is just a bailout for now, with a vague promise to reform later. This would lead either to an over-generous rescue of some of our worst companies, or an industry wipeout followed by another power grab by Too Big To Fail banks.

The whole episode is a classic example of how governmental ignorance married to corporate irresponsibility can lead to systemic FUBAR, though we still don’t know how this particular version will play out. As Cordray puts it, it’s not easy to predict where failures in the mortgage servicer industry might lead.

“What’s easy to predict, though,” he says, “is that it will be a mess.”

Yeah, no kidding.

The Titans of Tech

I reprint this article in full with citation from Quillette. The tone might sound a bit strident, but the warning signals pointing to a form of 21st-century feudalism are real. We’re seeing this in the CA housing crisis today and in the divergence in wealth and incomes since 1980, driven by cheap credit and technology. The oligarchs of tech have been able to leverage their wealth to dominate entertainment and information. They have set their sights on politics and the ideological politics of the tech industry are particularly disturbing and contradictory to its genesis in free-market entrepreneurialism.

You see, the idea here is to socialize the costs of wealth concentration and information centralization, using politics to buy off the unwashed masses who provide the raw material for their business models. Makes one feel good with noblesse oblige of the oligarchy, using the middle class’s money though.

Success can go to the brain.

What Do the Oligarchs Have in Mind for Us?

June 18, 2019

By Joel Kotkin

There seems to be no good reason why a thoroughly scientific
dictatorship should ever be overthrown.
~Aldous Huxley, Brave New World Revisited

The recent movement to investigate, and even break up, the current tech oligarchy has gained support on both sides of the Atlantic, and even leapt across the gaping divide in American politics. The immediate concerns relate to such things as the control of key markets by one or two firms, the huge concentration of wealth accruing to the tech elite and, increasingly, the oligarchy’s control over and manipulation of information pipelines.

What has not been discussed nearly as much is the end game of the oligarchs. What kind of world do they have in mind for us? Their vision of what our society should look like is not one most people—on the Left or Right—would like to see. And yet, unless unchecked, it could well be the world we, and particularly our children, will inhabit.

Almost 40 years ago, in his book The Third Wave, the futurist Alvin Toffler described technology as “the dawn of a new civilization” with vast opportunities for societal and human growth. But instead we are lurching towards what Taichi Sakaiya has called “a high-tech middle ages.” In his landmark 1973 work, The Coming of Post-Industrial SocietyDaniel Bell predicted that, by handing ultimate economic and cultural power to a small number of technologists and financiers the opportunity to monetize every aspect of human behavior and emotion, we would be handing them the chance to fulfill “a social alchemist’s dream: the dream of ordering mass society.”

The New Aristocracy

Like the barbarian princes who seized control of western Europe after the fall of Rome, the oligarchs have captured the digital landscape from the old industrial corporations and have proceeded to concentrate it in ever-fewer hands. Like the Medieval aristocracy, the ruling tech oligarchy—epitomized by firms such as Amazon, Google, Facebook, Apple, and Microsoft—have never produced a single coherent political manifesto laying out the technocratic vision of the future. Nevertheless, it is possible to get a sense of what the internet elite believe and, more tellingly, to see the outlines of the world they want to create.

This tiny sliver of humanity, with their relatively small cadre of financiers, engineers, data scientists, and marketers, now control the exploitation of our personal data, what Alibaba founder, Jack Ma calls the “electricity of the 21st century.” Their “super platforms,” as one analyst noted, “now operate as “digital gatekeepers” lording over “e-monopsonies” that control enormous parts of the economy. Their growing power, notes a recent World Bank Study, is built on “natural monopolies” that adhere to web-based business, and have served to further widen class divides not only in the United States but around the world.

The rulers of the Valley and its Puget Sound doppelganger now account for eight of the 20 wealthiest people on the planet. Seventy percent of the 56 billionaires under 40 live in the state of California, with 12 in San Francisco alone. In 2017, the tech industry, mostly in California, produced 11 new billionaires. The Bay Area has more billionaires on the Forbes 400 list than any metro region other than New York and more millionaires per capita than any other large metropolis.

For an industry once known for competition, the level of concentration is remarkable. Google controls nearly 90 percent of search advertising, Facebook almost 80 percent of mobile social traffic, and Amazon about 75 percent of US e-book sales, and, perhaps most importantly, nearly 40 percent of the world’s “cloud business.” Together, control more than 95 percent of operating software for mobile devices, while Microsoft still accounts for more than 80 percent of the software that runs personal computers around the world.

The wealth generated by these near-monopolies funds the tech oligarchy’s drive to monopolize existing industries such as entertainment, education, and retail, as well as those of the future, such as autonomous cars, drones, space exploration, and most critically, artificial intelligence. Unless checked, they will have accumulated the power to bring about what could best be seen as a “post-human” future, in which society is dominated by artificial intelligence and those who control it.

What Do the Oligarchs Want?

The oligarchs are creating a “a scientific caste system,” not dissimilar to that outlined in Aldous Huxley’s dystopian 1932 novel, Brave New World. Unlike the former masters of the industrial age, they have little use for the labor of  middle- and working-class people—they need only their data. Virtually all their human resource emphasis relies on cultivating and retaining a relative handful of tech-savvy operators. “Software,” Bill Gates told Forbes in 2005, “is an IQ business. Microsoft must win the IQ war, or we won’t have a future.”

Perhaps the best insight into the mentality of the tech oligarchy comes from an admirer, researcher Greg Ferenstein, who interviewed 147 digital company founders. The emerging tech world has little place for upward mobility, he found, except for those in the charmed circle at the top of the tech infrastructure; the middle and working classes become, as in feudal times, increasingly marginal.

This reflects their perception of how society will evolve. Ferenstein notes that most oligarchs believe “an increasingly greater share of economic wealth will be generated by a smaller slice of very talented or original people. Everyone else will increasingly subsist on some combination of part-time entrepreneurial ‘gig work’ and government aid.” Such part-time work has been growing rapidly, accounting for roughly 20 percent of the workforce in the US and Europe, and is expected to grow substantially, adds McKinsey.

Of course, the oligarchs have no more intention of surrendering their power and wealth to the proletariat than the Commissars did after the 1917 revolution in Russia. Instead, they favor providing what Marx once described as a “proletarian alms bag” to subsidize worker housing, and provide welfare benefits to their ever expanding cadre of “gig” economy serfs. The former head of Uber, Travis Kalanick, was a strong supporter of Obamacare, and many top tech executives—including Mark Zuckerberg, Y combinator founder Sam Altman, and Elon Musk—favor a guaranteed annual wage to help, in part, allay fears about the “disruption” on a potentially exposed workforce.

Their social vision amounts to what could be called oligarchal socialism, or what the Corbynite Left calls “fully automated luxury communism.” Like the original bolshevist model, technology and science, as suggested by billionaire tech investor Naval Ravikant, would occasion “the breakdown of family structure and religion” while creating the hegemony of a left-wing identity-centered individualism.

Life in a world dominated by these oligarchs would depart from the model of democratic and competitive capitalism that emerged over the last half-century. Rather than hope to achieve upward mobility and the chance to own property, the new generation will be relegated largely to the status of rental serfs. For the next generation, this promises a future not of upward mobility and owned houses, but of rented apartments and social stagnation. Here in California, Facebook is leading the drive to vastly expand this kind of housing, where the serfs and technocoolies can lose themselves in what Google calls “immersive computing.”The poor, most of whom simply want opportunity, will be relegated to permanent dependent status.

The World They Are Creating

To get a preview of the society the oligarchs want to create, the best place to look is where oligarchal domination is most complete. Wired magazine’s Antonio Garcia Martinez has called Silicon Valley “feudalism with better marketing.” In Martinez’s view, the new aristocratic class is an “Inner Party” of venture capitalists and company founders. Well below them is an “Outer Party” of skilled professionals, well paid, but forced to live ordinary middle-class lives due to high housing prices and high taxes. Below them lies the vast population of gig workers, whom Martinez compares to sharecroppers in the South, “…with the serfs responding to a smartphone prompt rather than an overseer’s command.” Further below still lie those who constitute, in Martinez’s phrase, “the Untouchable class of the homeless, drug addicted, and/or criminal.”

California, and particularly the Bay Area, already reflects this neo-feudal reality. Adjusted for costs, my adopted home state suffers the overall highest poverty rate in the country, according to the US  Census Bureau. Fully one in three welfare recipients in the nation live in California, which is home to barely 12 percent of the country’s population, while a 2017 United Way study showed that close to one in three of the state’s families are barely able to pay their bills. Today, eight million Californians live in poverty, including two million children. Roughly one in five California children lives in deep poverty and nearly half subsist barely above that.

For all its protestations of progressive faith, the Golden State now suffers one of the highest GINI rates—the ratio between the wealthiest and the poorest—among the states. Inequality is growing faster than in almost any state—it now surpasses that of Mexico, and is closer to that of Central American banana republics like Guatemala and Honduras than it is to developed countries like Canada and Norway. There’s even the return of medieval diseases such as Typhus tied to the growing homeless encampments. We could soon even see the return of Bubonic plague, although the mainstream media seems to be ready to blame this, like most ills, on climate change as opposed to failed social policy.

Urban website CityLab has described the tech-rich Bay Area as “a region of segregated innovation,” where the rich wax, the middle-class wanes, and the poor live in increasingly unshakeable poverty. Some 76,000 millionaires and billionaires call Santa Clara and San Mateo counties home. At the other end are the thousands of people who struggle to feed their families and pay their bills each month. Nearly 30 percent of Silicon Valley’s residents rely on public or private assistance.

As recently as the 1980s, the San Jose area boasted one of the country’s most egalitarian economies. But in the current boom, cost-adjusted wages for middle class workers, Latinos, and African Americans in Silicon Valley actually dropped. Many minorities labor in the service sector in jobs such as security guard, for around $25,000 annually, working for contractors. There’s ever-greater segregation of minority and low income families, workers forced into mobile home parks or sleeping in their cars, as well as some of the nation’s largest homeless encampments. According to the Brookings Institution, in the last decade, increasingly tech-dominated San Francisco has suffered the most rapid growth in inequality while the middle class family heads towards extinction.

Needed: An Alliance of Progressives and Conservatives against the Oligarchy

Americans, enamored of the entrepreneurial spirit, were initially slow to see in the tech oligarchy a threat to the future of the republic. But public skepticism, notably in California, towards the tech lords is growing; many on both sides of the political divide see them much like modern versions of the gilded age mogul, successfully playing the political system to avoid regulation, anti-trust action, and taxes.

Yet overcoming the oligarchs will not be easy. Far more than the old industrial giants, they enjoy unprecedented sway through their manipulation of the information pipelines, as is widely evidenced in de-platforming of largely conservative voices on outlets such as Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter. Nearly two-thirds of readers now get their news through and their dominance among younger generations is, if anything, more overwhelming. As the Guardian put it: “If ExxonMobil attempted to insert itself into every element of our lives like this, there might be a concerted grassroots movement to curb its influence.”

To this influence, they have added control over what is left of the traditional media they have helped to undermine. Often getting bargain basement prices, the oligarchs have been able to buy up prestigious outlets, including the New Republic in 2012, the Washington Post in 2013, the Atlantic in 2017, and Time last year.

In the coming political storm, the oligarchs will also retain some supporters on both the Left and Right, all aided by a huge, growing, and politically hermaphroditic lobbying operation. Some California progressives have backed the oligarchs on privacy and Senator Kamala Harris, one of the leading Democratic contenders, has gained widespread support from the oligarchs. Meanwhile, on the Right, some libertarians at places like the Wall Street Journal and conservative think-tanks, continue to defend the oligarchs as the rightful winners of dogged economic competition.

But these well-placed defenders may not be enough to fend off regulatory assaults, particularly as more people recognize how the world being created by the tech elites offers little promise for the middle class, democracy, or free thought. Rather than the saviors many once saw, the oligarchs now represent a clear and present danger to the most basic foundations of our democracy. Resisting them represents the great imperative of our era.

Joel Kotkin is a Presidential Fellow in Urban Futures at Chapman University and Executive Director for the Center for Opportunity Urbanism. His last book was The Human City: Urbanism for the Rest of Us (Agate, 2017).

What’s Going On?

This is an excellent interview with technology culture guru Jaron Lanier, author of some very insightful books on the clashes between technology and humanism. See comments and highlights below…

And then when you move out of the tech world, everybody’s struggling…

It’s not so much that they’re doing badly, but they have only labor and no capital. Or the way I used to put it is, they have to sing for their supper, for every single meal. It’s making everyone else take on all the risk. It’s like we’re the people running the casino and everybody else takes the risks and we don’t. That’s how it feels to me. It’s not so much that everyone else is doing badly as that they’ve lost economic capital and standing, and momentum and plannability. It’s a subtle difference.

‘One Has This Feeling of Having Contributed to Something That’s Gone Very Wrong’

By Noah Kulwin April 17, 2018 New York Magazine

Over the last few months, Select All has interviewed more than a dozen prominent technology figures about what has gone wrong with the contemporary internet for a project called “The Internet Apologizes.” We’re now publishing lengthier transcripts of each individual interview. This interview features Jaron Lanier, a pioneer in the field of virtual reality and the founder of the first company to sell VR goggles. Lanier currently works at Microsoft Research as an interdisciplinary scientist. He is the author of the forthcoming book Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now.

You can find other interviews from this series here.

Jaron Lanier: Can I just say one thing now, just to be very clear? Professionally, I’m at Microsoft, but when I speak to you, I’m not representing Microsoft at all. There’s not even the slightest hint that this represents any official Microsoft thing. I have an agreement within which I’m able to be an independent public intellectual, even if it means criticizing them. I just want to be very clear that this isn’t a Microsoft position.

Noah Kulwin: Understood.
Yeah, sorry. I really just wanted to get that down. So now please go ahead, I’m so sorry to interrupt you.

In November, you told Maureen Dowd that it’s scary and awful how out of touch Silicon Valley people have become. It’s a pretty forward remark. I’m kind of curious what you mean by that.
To me, one of the patterns we see that makes the world go wrong is when somebody acts as if they aren’t powerful when they actually are powerful. So if you’re still reacting against whatever you used to struggle for, but actually you’re in control, then you end up creating great damage in the world. Like, oh, I don’t know, I could give you many examples. But let’s say like Russia’s still acting as if it’s being destroyed when it isn’t, and it’s creating great damage in the world. And Silicon Valley’s kind of like that.

We used to be kind of rebels, like, if you go back to the origins of Silicon Valley culture, there were these big traditional companies like IBM that seemed to be impenetrable fortresses. And we had to create our own world. To us, we were the underdogs and we had to struggle. And we’ve won. I mean, we have just totally won. We run everything. We are the conduit of everything else happening in the world. We’ve disrupted absolutely everything. Politics, finance, education, media, relationships — family relationships, romantic relationships — we’ve put ourselves in the middle of everything, we’ve absolutely won. But we don’t act like it.

We have no sense of balance or modesty or graciousness having won. We’re still acting as if we’re in trouble and we have to defend ourselves, which is preposterous. And so in doing that we really kind of turn into assholes, you know?

How do you think that siege mentality has fed into the ongoing crisis with the tech backlash?

One of the problems is that we’ve isolated ourselves through extreme wealth and success. Before, we might’ve been isolated because we were nerdy insurgents. But now we’ve found a new method to isolate ourselves, where we’re just so successful and so different from so many other people that our circumstances are different. And we have less in common with all the people whose lives we’ve disrupted. I’m just really struck by that. I’m struck with just how much better off we are financially, and I don’t like the feeling of it.

Personally, I would give up a lot of the wealth and elite status that we have in order to just live in a friendly, more connected world where it would be easier to move about and not feel like everything else is insecure and falling apart. People in the tech world, they’re all doing great, they all feel secure. I mean they might worry about a nuclear attack or something, but their personal lives are really secure.

And then when you move out of the tech world, everybody’s struggling. It’s a very strange thing. The numbers show an economy that’s doing well, but the reality is that the way it’s doing well doesn’t give many people a feeling of security or confidence in their futures. It’s like everybody’s working for Uber in one way or another. Everything’s become the gig economy. And we routed it that way, that’s our doing. There’s this strange feeling when you just look outside of the tight circle of Silicon Valley, almost like entering another country, where people are less secure. It’s not a good feeling. I don’t think it’s worth it, I think we’re wrong to want that feeling.

It’s not so much that they’re doing badly, but they have only labor and no capital. Or the way I used to put it is, they have to sing for their supper, for every single meal. It’s making everyone else take on all the risk. It’s like we’re the people running the casino and everybody else takes the risks and we don’t. That’s how it feels to me. It’s not so much that everyone else is doing badly as that they’ve lost economic capital and standing, and momentum and plannability. It’s a subtle difference.

There’s still this rhetoric of being the underdog in the tech industry. The attitude within the Valley is “Are you kidding? You think we’re resting on our laurels? No! We have to fight for every yard.”

There’s this question of whether what you’re fighting for is something that’s really new and a benefit for humanity, or if you’re only engaged in a sort of contest with other people that’s fundamentally not meaningful to anyone else. The theory of markets and capitalism is that when we compete, what we’re competing for is to get better at something that’s actually a benefit to people, so that everybody wins. So if you’re building a better mousetrap, or a better machine-learning algorithm, then that competition should generate improvement for everybody.

But if it’s a purely abstract competition set up between insiders to the exclusion of outsiders, it might feel like a competition, it might feel very challenging and stressful and hard to the people doing it, but it doesn’t actually do anything for anybody else. It’s no longer genuinely productive for anybody, it’s a fake. And I’m a little concerned that a lot of what we’ve been doing in Silicon Valley has started to take on that quality. I think that’s been a problem in Wall Street for a while, but the way it’s been a problem in Wall Street has been aided by Silicon Valley. Everything becomes a little more abstract and a little more computer-based. You have this very complex style of competition that might not actually have much substance to it.

You look at the big platforms, and it’s not like there’s this bountiful ecosystem of start-ups. The rate of small-business creation is at its lowest in decades, and instead you have a certain number of start-ups competing to be acquired by a handful of companies. There are not that many varying powers, there’s just a few.
That’s something I’ve been complaining about and I’ve written about for a while, that Silicon Valley used to be this place where people could do a start-up and the start-up might become a big company on its own, or it might be acquired, or it might merge into things. But lately it kind of feels like both at the start and at the end of the life of a start-up, things are a little bit more constrained. It used to be that you didn’t have to know the right people, but now you do. You have to get in with the right angel investors or incubator or whatever at the start. And they’re just a small number, it’s like a social order, you have to get into them. And then the output on the other side is usually being acquired by one of a very small number of top companies.

There are a few exceptions, you can see Dropbox’s IPO. But they’re rarer and rarer. And I suspect Dropbox in the future might very well be acquired by one of the giants. It’s not clear that it’ll survive as its own thing in the long term. I mean, we don’t know. I have no inside information about that, I’m just saying that the much more typical scenario now, as you described, is that the companies go to one of the biggies.

I’m kind of curious what you think needs to happen to prevent future platforms, like VR, from going the way of social media and reaching this really profitable crisis state.

A lot of the rhetoric of Silicon Valley that has the utopian ring about creating meaningful communities where everybody’s creative and people collaborate and all this stuff — I don’t wanna make too much of my own contribution, but I was kind of the first author of some of that rhetoric a long time ago. So it kind of stings for me to see it misused. Like, I used to talk about how virtual reality could be a tool for empathy, and then I see Mark Zuckerberg talking about how VR could be a tool for empathy while being profoundly nonempathic, using VR to tour Puerto Rico after the storm, after Maria. One has this feeling of having contributed to something that’s gone very wrong.

So I guess the overall way I think of it is, first, we might remember ourselves as having been lucky that some of these problems started to come to a head during the social-media era, before tools like virtual reality become more prominent, because the technology is still not as intense as it probably will be in the future. So as bad as it’s been, as bad as the election interference and the fomenting of ethnic warfare, and the empowering of neo-Nazis, and the bullying — as bad as all of that has been, we might remember ourselves as having been fortunate that it happened when the technology was really just little slabs we carried around in our pockets that we could look at and that could talk to us, or little speakers we could talk to. It wasn’t yet a whole simulated reality that we could inhabit.

Because that will be so much more intense, and that has so much more potential for behavior modification, and fooling people, and controlling people. So things potentially could get a lot worse, and hopefully they’ll get better as a result of our experiences during this era.

As far as what to do differently, I’ve had a particular take on this for a long time that not everybody agrees with. I think the fundamental mistake we made is that we set up the wrong financial incentives, and that’s caused us to turn into jerks and screw around with people too much. Way back in the ’80s, we wanted everything to be free because we were hippie socialists. But we also loved entrepreneurs because we loved Steve Jobs. So you wanna be both a socialist and a libertarian at the same time, and it’s absurd. But that’s the kind of absurdity that Silicon Valley culture has to grapple with.

And there’s only one way to merge the two things, which is what we call the advertising model, where everything’s free but you pay for it by selling ads. But then because the technology gets better and better, the computers get bigger and cheaper, there’s more and more data — what started out as advertising morphed into continuous behavior modification on a mass basis, with everyone under surveillance by their devices and receiving calculated stimulus to modify them. So you end up with this mass behavior-modification empire, which is straight out of Philip K. Dick, or from earlier generations, from 1984.

It’s this thing that we were warned about. It’s this thing that we knew could happen. Norbert Wiener, who coined the term cybernetics, warned about it as a possibility. And despite all the warnings, and despite all of the cautions, we just walked right into it, and we created mass behavior-modification regimes out of our digital networks. We did it out of this desire to be both cool socialists and cool libertarians at the same time.

This dovetails with something you’ve said in the past that’s with me, which is your phrase Digital Maoism. Do you think that the Digital Maoism that you described years ago — are those the people who run Silicon Valley today?

I was talking about a few different things at the time I wrote “Digital Maoism.” One of them was the way that we were centralizing culture, even though the rhetoric was that we were distributing it. Before Wikipedia, I think it would have been viewed as being this horrible thing to say that there could only be one encyclopedia, and that there would be one dominant entry for a given topic. Instead, there were different encyclopedias. There would be variations not so much in what facts were presented, but in the way they were presented. That voice was a real thing.

And then we moved to this idea that we have a single dominant encyclopedia that was supposed to be the truth for the global AI or something like that. But there’s something deeply pernicious about that. So we’re saying anybody can write for Wikipedia, so it’s, like, purely democratic and it’s this wonderful open thing, and yet the bizarreness is that that open democratic process is on the surface of something that struck me as being Maoist, which is that there’s this one point of view that’s then gonna be the official one.

And then I also noticed that that process of people being put into a global system in which they’re supposed to work together toward some sort of dominating megabrain that’s the one truth didn’t seem to bring out the best in people, that people turned aggressive and mean-spirited when they interacted in that context. I had worked on some content for Britannica years and years ago, and I never experienced the kind of just petty meanness that’s just commonplace in everything about the internet. Among many other places, on Wikipedia.

On the one hand, you have this very open collective process actually in the service of this very domineering global brain, destroyer of local interpretation, destroyer of individual voice process. And then you also have this thing that seems to bring out this meanness in people, where people get into this kind of mob mentality and they become unkind to each other. And those two things have happened all over the internet; they’re both very present in Facebook, everywhere. And it’s a bit of a subtle debate, and it takes a while to work through it with somebody who doesn’t see what I’m talking about. That was what I was talking about.

But then there’s this other thing about the centralization of economic power. What happened with Maoists and with communists in general, and neo-Marxists and all kinds of similar movements, is that on the surface, you say everybody shares, everybody’s equal, we’re not gonna have this capitalist concentration. But then there’s some other entity that might not look like traditional capitalism, but is effectively some kind of robber baron that actually owns everything, some kind of Communist Party actually controls everything, and you have just a very small number of individuals who become hyperempowered and everybody else loses power.

And exactly the same thing has happened with the supposed openness of the internet, where you say, “Isn’t it wonderful, with Facebook and Twitter anybody can express themselves. Everybody’s an equal, everybody’s empowered.” But in fact, we’re in a period of time of extreme concentration of wealth and power, and it’s precisely around those who run the biggest computers. So the truth and the effect is just the opposite of what the rhetoric is and the immediate experience.

A lot of people were furious with me over Digital Maoism and felt that I had betrayed our cause or something, and I lost some friends over it. And some of it was actually hard. But I fail to see how it was anything but accurate. I don’t wanna brag, but I think I was just right. I think that that’s what was going on and that’s what’s happening in China. But what’s worse is that it’s happening elsewhere.

The thing is, I’m not sure that what’s going on in the U.S. is that distinct from what’s going on in China. I think there are some differences, but they’re in degree; they’re not stark. The Chinese are saying if you have a low social rating you can’t get on the subway, but on the other hand, we’re doing algorithmic profiling that’s sending people to jail, and we know that the algorithms are racist. Are we really that much better?

I’m not really sure. I think it would be hard to determine it. But I think we’re doing many of the same things; it’s just that we package them in a slightly different way when we tell stories to ourselves.

This is something I write about, you know I have another book coming out shortly?

Yeah, that was gonna be where I took this next.

One of the things that I’ve been concerned about is this illusion where you think that you’re in this super-democratic open thing, but actually it’s exactly the opposite; it’s actually creating a super concentration of wealth and power, and disempowering you. This has been particularly cruel politically. Every time there’s some movement, like the Black Lives Matter movement, or maybe now the March for Our Lives movement, or #MeToo, or very classically the Arab Spring, you have this initial period where people feel like they’re on this magic-carpet ride and that social media is letting them broadcast their opinions for very low cost, and that they’re able to reach people and organize faster than ever before. And they’re thinking, Wow, Facebook and Twitter are these wonderful tools of democracy.

But then the algorithms have to maximize value from all the data that’s coming in. So they test use that data. And it just turns out as a matter of course, that the same data that is a positive, constructive process for the people who generated it — Black Lives Matter, or the Arab Spring — can be used to irritate other groups. And unfortunately there’s this asymmetry in human emotions where the negative emotions of fear and hatred and paranoia and resentment come up faster, more cheaply, and they’re harder to dispel than the positive emotions. So what happens is, every time there’s some positive motion in these networks, the negative reaction is actually more powerful. So when you have a Black Lives Matter, the result of that is the empowerment of the worst racists and neo-Nazis in a way that hasn’t been seen in generations. When you have an Arab Spring, the result ultimately is the network empowerment of ISIS and other extremists — bloodthirsty, horrible things, the likes of which haven’t been seen in the Arab world or in Islam for years, if ever.

Black Lives Matter has incredible visibility, but the reality is that even though it has had an enormous effect on the discursive level, and at making the country fixated on this conversation, that’s distinct from political force necessary to effect that change. What do you think about the sort of gap between what Silicon Valley platforms have promised in that respect and then the material reality?

That observation — that social-media politics is all talk and no action or something, or that it’s empty — is compatible with, but a little bit different from, what I was saying. I’m saying that it empowers its opposite more than the original good intention. And those two things can both be true at once, but I just wanna point out that they’re two different explanations for why nothing decent seems to come out in the end.

I want to be wrong. I especially wanna be wrong about the March for Our Lives kids. I really wanna be wrong about them. I want them to not fall into this because they’re our hope, they’re the future of our country, so I very deeply, profoundly wanna be wrong. I don’t want their social-media data to empower the opposite movement that ends up being more powerful because negative emotions are more powerful. I just wanna be wrong. I so wanna be telling you bullshit right now.

So far it’s been right, but that doesn’t mean it will continue to be. So please let me be wrong.

Platforms seem trapped in this fundamental tension, and I’m just not sure how they break out of that.

My feeling is that if the theory is correct that we got into this by trying to be socialist and libertarian at the same time, and getting the worst of both worlds, then we have to choose. You either have to say, “Okay, Facebook is not going to be a business anymore. We said we wanted to create this thing to connect people, but we’re actually making the world worse, so we’re not gonna allow people to advertise on it; we’re not gonna allow anybody to have any influence on your feed but you. This is all about you. We’re gonna turn it into a nonprofit; we’re gonna give it to each country; it’ll be nationalized. We’ll do some final stock things so all the people who contributed to it will be rich beyond their dreams. But then after that it’s done; it’s not a business. We’ll buy back everybody’s stock and it’s done. It’s over. That’s it.”

[Blogger note: this choice between socialism and libertarianism is a highly interesting and crucial question, but I don’t think there’s one answer. Facebook strikes me as a dysfunctional idea from the beginning. Social interaction doesn’t scale, data networks scale. A global gossip network like Facebook makes almost no sense. I suspect FB will be competed down to many different functional social media models rather than one concentrated behemoth. Something like search. or Wikipedia seems rather different in nature. Google Search looks more and more like a public good, which means it is likely to become a regulated public utility. It’s not exactly clear how search works as a public utility, but I think the political imperative is already there.]

That’s one option. So it just turns into a socialist enterprise; we let it be nationalized and it’s gone. The other option is to monetize it. And that’s the one that I’m personally more interested in. And what that would look like is, we’d ask those who can afford to — which would be a lot of people in the world, certainly most people in the West — to start paying for it. And then we’d also pay people who provide data into it that’s exceptionally valuable to the network, and it would become a source of economic growth. And we would outlaw advertising on it. There would no longer be third parties paying to influence you.

Because as long as you have advertising, you have this perverse incentive to make it manipulative. You can’t have a behavior-modification machine with advertisers and have anything ethical; it’s not possible. You could get away with it barely with television because television wasn’t as effective at modifying people. But this, there’s no ethical way to have advertising.

So you’d ban advertising, and you’d start paying people, a subset of people; a minority of people would start earning their living because they just do stuff that other people love to look at over Facebook or the other social networks, or YouTube for that matter. And then most people would pay into it in the same way that we pay into something like Netflix or HBO Now.

And one of the things I wanna point out is that back at the time when Facebook was founded, the belief was that in the future there wouldn’t be paid people making movies and television because armies of unpaid volunteers organized through our network schemes would make superior content, just like what happened with Wikipedia. But what actually happened is, when people started paying for Netflix, we got what we call Peak TV — things got much better as a result of it being monetized.

So I think if we had a situation where people were paying for something like Facebook, and being paid for it, and advertising was absolutely outlawed, the only customer would be the user, there would be no other customer. If we got into that situation, I think we have at least a chance of achieving Peak Social Media, just like we achieved Peak TV. We might actually see things improve a great deal.

So that’s the solution that I think is better. But we can’t do this combination of libertarian and communist ideology. It just doesn’t work. You have to choose one.

You’ve written this book, Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts. I don’t want to make you summarize the whole book, but I want to ask what you thought was the most urgent argument, and to explain why.
Okay. By the way, it’s … For Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now.

Right now! So the whole thing is already urgent, so which of these urgent pleas do you believe to be the most pressing?

There’s one that’s a little complicated, which is the last one. Because I have the one about politics, and I have the one about economics. That it’s ruining politics, it’s empowering the most obnoxious people to be the most powerful inherently, and that’s destroying the world. I have the one about economics, how it’s centralizing wealth even while it seems to be democratizing it. I have the one about how it makes you feel sad; I have all these different ones.

But at the end, I have one that’s a spiritual one. The argument is that social media hates your soul. And it suggests that there’s a whole spiritual, religious belief system along with social media like Facebook that I think people don’t like. And it’s also fucking phony and false. It suggests that life is some kind of optimization, like you’re supposed to be struggling to get more followers and friends. Zuckerberg even talked about how the new goal of Facebook would be to give everybody a meaningful life, as if something about Facebook is where the meaning of life is.

It suggests that you’re just a cog in a giant global brain or something like that. The rhetoric from the companies is often about AI, that what they’re really doing — like YouTube’s parent company, Google, says what they really are is building the giant global brain that’ll inherit the earth and they’ll upload you to that brain and then you won’t have to die. It’s very, very religious in the rhetoric. And so it’s turning into this new religion, and it’s a religion that doesn’t care about you. It’s a religion that’s completely lacking in empathy or any kind of personal acknowledgment. And it’s a bad religion. It’s a nerdy, empty, sterile, ugly, useless religion that’s based on false ideas. And I think that of all of the things, that’s the worst thing about it.

I mean, it’s sort of like a cult of personality. It’s like in North Korea or some regime where the religion is your purpose to serve this one guy. And your purpose is to serve this one system, which happens to be controlled by one guy, in the case of Facebook.

It’s not as blunt and out there, but that is the underlying message of it and it’s ugly and bad. I loathe it, and I think a lot of people have that feeling, but they might not have articulated it or gotten it to the surface because it’s just such a weird and new situation.

On the other hand, there’s a rising backlash that may end the platforms before they have the opportunity to take root and produce yet another vicious problem.

I’m in my late 50s now. I have an 11-year-old daughter, and the thing that bothers me so much is that we’re giving them a world that isn’t as good as the world we received. We’re giving them a world in which their hopes for being able to create a decent, happy, reasonably low-stress life, where they can have their own kids, it’s just not as good as what we were given. We have not done well by them.

And then to say that observing our own mistakes means that you’re old and don’t get it is profoundly counterproductive. It’s really just a way of evading our own responsibility. The truth is that we totally have screwed over younger generations. And that’s a bigger story than just the social-media and tech thing, but the social-media and tech thing is a big part of it. We’ve created a scammy society where we concentrate wealth in ways that are petty and not helpful, and we’ve given them a world of far fewer options than we had. There’s nothing I want more than for the younger people to create successful lives and create a world that they love. I mean, that’s what it’s all about. But to say that the path to that is for them to agree with the thing we made for them is just so self-serving and so obnoxiously narcissistic that it makes me wanna throw up.

This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.