ice skat

Monopolies and Kindly Octopi

Robert Appelbaum   September 02, 2014

When is a monopoly a monopoly, and when is it rather a kindly octopus?

I know of one example of what economists call a “pure” monopoly first hand, on an all-too-regular basis. It is Systembolaget, the state-run liquor store in Sweden, where I live. There are over four hundred Systembolaget outlets in Sweden (population 9.5 million), along with about 500 special-order “agents” operating in sparsely-settled areas. If you want to buy a bottle of wine or spirits, beer over 3.5 percent alcohol or any other beverage above 2.2 percent, you have to buy it from one of the limited number of outlets or agents.

Other countries and some American states run similar monopolies on alcohol, and there are several other sorts of pure monopoly. Growing up in America in the 1950s and 60s I was familiar with many of them: regional utility companies, the national phone company, the national passenger railway company, regional mass transit services. Some of them were state-run, while others were private but state-sanctioned and regulated. Usually they were not only “pure,” with absolute control over distribution, but also what economists call “natural.”

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Daily Bafflements

The Baffler   September 02, 2014
(Nope, not even them.) / Photo via Darren Jeffers and Tshirt Subway.

• We’ve all heard about how the changes in the music industry are going to be okay for artists in the end. Check out “20 Artists Who Make a Killing Off of T-shirt Sales.”

• Here’s a sobering post-Labor-Day reminder that our hard-fought minimum-wage and overtime laws don’t mean a thing if they aren’t enforced.

• Speaking of which, fast-food workers across the country are planning another massive strike, for this coming Thursday.

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Labor Day Reading from The Baffler

The Editors   August 29, 2014
Baffler9cover

Happy Friday, all! If you find yourself with some extra time over this long Labor Day weekend, why not take a moment to think about the reason for the season?

These classic salvos from The Baffler all happen to be from issue 9 of The Baffler, a labor-themed issue we published in 1997. (This same issue also features Tom’s Vanderbilt’s take on Dilbert, and one of the best and most important pieces we’ve ever run, “Internment Camp” by the late great Jim Frederick, come to think of it.)

In “Confessions of a Labor Editor,” Jim McNeill writes about his time at Racine Labor in Wisconsin, covering union issues in the Rust Belt (including that one time he wrote a letter to the editor of the Wall Street Journal in response to a particularly tone-deaf column there, and accidentally became a folk hero). As he learned the ropes, one retired union leader shared with him the secret of any successful strike: “Solidarity, sabotage, and vandalism.”

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The Perpetual Sales Pitch

M.B. Goodrich   August 29, 2014
Hi, hello, how are you, hi, hello. / Photo by thetaxhaven

A farmer grows fruit, a carpenter builds a chair. The fruit is fresh or foul, the chair sturdy or flimsy. Either way, the marketplace decides. Relative quality is apparent: the slickest of salesmen will have trouble selling rotten apples if there is decent fruit to be had nearby. And what of those who sell themselves? A banker goes to an interview, a consultant writes a resume: the shinier packaging gets hired.

The history of economic instruments follows a pattern of abstraction. Our understanding of value and production has become steadily less concrete: from price defined by barter (five apples for one of your chairs) to common currency; from the farmer’s stockhouse to the broker’s Stock Exchange; from marketplace to office space. For a large segment of the modern job economy, where teamwork conceals most individual contributions and success or failure are spun in press releases, successful job applicants are rarely hired for concrete, objective reasons. Since the inception of the modern business, successful job applicants have demonstrated the ability to maintain a robust network of friends and charmed their interviewers by marshaling abstract events to tell their story.

Indeed these skills will be essential to the job. Consultants are not expected to stop networking and selling themselves once they’re on the company dime. After all, there will be clients to win over. Rich clients who will pat themselves on the back for hiring such bright-eyed young men and women to protect their fortunes so they can afford to keep buying their fruit organic. And the young believers realize the truth—that they can never stop selling themselves.

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Daily Bafflements

The Baffler   August 29, 2014
A still from Grand Theft Auto IV, via Silvio Sousa Cabral

• “Suddenly a generation of lonely basement kids had marketers whispering in their ears that they were the most important commercial demographic of all time. Suddenly they started wearing shiny blouses and pinning bikini babes onto everything they made, started making games that sold the promise of high-octane masculinity to kids just like them. By the turn of the millennium those were games’ only main cultural signposts: Have money. Have women. Get a gun and then a bigger gun.” - Leigh Alexander on gamer culture (via Ian Bogost).

• A soldier fighting in Afghanistan anonymously sent a GoPro video he made of a firefight to Esquire, writing: “I wanted to share the video with the world because I was sick of hearing all the ignorant things said about what we are doing over there. People need to understand what it’s like on the ground for the troops on the front line, and see what we have to deal with on a daily basis without some political spin on the story.”

• Developers hope to cash in with a new Philadelphia apartment building with a “mix of design sophistication and calculated grit,” so they “cleverly kept a rim of authentic graffiti around the wall of the spectacular roof deck, infusing the luxe space with real street cred,” writes Inga Saffron at the Philadelphia Inquirer, disdainfully. (All built with non-union labor, of course.)

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Hide the Husbands, Prostitution’s on the Interwebs

Alana Massey   August 28, 2014
Late-breaking reports tell us that some women are selling sex through a series of tubes known as the "Internet." / Photo by Nathan Jongewaard.

It seems that every few years, some intrepid reporter feels the need to make the game-changing discovery that a lot of people use the Internet to conduct their business. Though this sounds like an absolute non-story, when the people in question are sex workers and their business is sex, otherwise-discerning editors are bound to green-light a variety of stories that all essentially reveal the non-breaking news that sex workers advertise and network online.

While it would be nice to think that the recent slew of stories covering the topic of sex workers online is just another example of lazy journalism, the conclusions many of these stories draw have much more damaging implications for an already marginalized community.

Some of the stories appear to just be comically out-of-touch. A thorough report on sex workers online in an August issue of The Economist comes complete with what appears to be a piece of speculative fiction masquerading as the history of sex work before the Internet. Here’s an excerpt:

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Daily Bafflements

The Baffler   August 28, 2014
Photo by Sue

• Today in Bespoke: Long Island-born duo Cody and Zachary Vichinsky have founded Bespoke Real Estate, an agency that deals exclusively with homes worth $10 million and above in the Hamptons. The real estate slump is over, they say; with a $147 million home selling earlier this year, the Vichinksys tell Bloomberg TV that the market is stronger than ever. The host of the segment asks where the new investors are coming from, whether they are foreign or local; at one point he observes that, the last time he was out in the Hamptons, “it looked like a lot of rich white people.”

• These two apps both imitate the look and feel and sound of a typewriter, on an iPad, but only one of them was made by Oscar-winner Tom Hanks. (Via The Paris Review Daily.)

• Today in Billionaires: Forbes reports that three Chinese billionaires, Wang Jianlin, Pony Ma, and Robin Li, with a combined fortune of $428 billion, are teaming up to launch a new e-commerce platform to challenge Alibaba. Sounds like the makings of an excellent TV sitcom.

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Back-to-School Shopping with The Baffler

The Editors   August 27, 2014
Poster featuring the art of Brad Holland, on sale here.

Hey kids! Are you excited to head off to college? Maybe it’s time to read Thomas Frank’s “Academy Fight Song” and see if that changes your mind.

No? You’re still going? Okay, well, if you want to start the year off right, by impressing your friends and alienating your teachers, you might want to bring to campus a bunch of Baffler books and this handsome bullshit-dozer tote bag to put them all in.

Or do you need some art to decorate your dorm-room walls, perhaps? Maybe you’d like to peruse some of the colorful and cheerfully negative offerings on hand from Baffler illustrator Brad Holland:

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