Letter #3: Spare The Rod, Spoil The Oligarch
The Legend of Robert Smalls | The Metaverse Sounds Awful
A global 15% minimum tax deal has been agreed upon by 136 countries including the G20, together representing 90% of the global economy. The goal is to have the taxes in force by 2023. This is significant if it can be implemented - but the United States Congress is likely going to be a major obstacle.
One of America’s biggest diplomatic failures of the 20th century was when President Woodrow Wilson got all of the world powers to agree to a League of Nations, but couldn’t get his own nation’s Congress to ratify any of its terms. A similar outcome, perhaps less dramatic, threatens President Joe Biden when he returns from the G20 summit. Convincing the world that global coordinated action is needed to rein in capital flight is one thing, but convincing America1 to ever lay tax hands on a billionaire? Good luck with that one.
A global minimum tax would theoretically stem the incentive for large corporations to flee the countries they were founded in. It would also stop smaller countries from depending too heavily on undercutting the large countries’ tax rates in order to woo foreign corporations’ tax revenue; a dynamic described accurately as a “race to the bottom”. Nobody wins except the corporations. Shocker. Leveling the playing field, as it were, means Ireland can return to being famous for good whiskey and emerald hills, as God intended.
Much has been written lately about how the wealthy avoid taxes. The most popular method is called “Buy, Borrow & Die”. That fun-sounding phrase refers to the wealth-preservation strategy of buying assets (like real estate, stocks and art), borrowing against them (at unprofitably-low rates for the lending banks, who only allow it because they want to keep this kind of clientele), not getting taxed on any of it, and dying. At death there are other methods of avoiding estate taxes, assuming you made enough to use your entire $11 million exemption.
Oh, you didn’t? Maybe you will next year. We’re rooting for you.
The uncomfortable reality is that the ultra-wealthy write the rules in the United States, and Congress rubber-stamps them. Don’t expect that to change anytime soon; we literally are psychologically trained to shrug off rich people’s bad behavior, even if it harms thousands. Bad behavior isn’t unique to the rich, but the same bad behavior gets working poor people murdered. On top of that, the closing of every tax loophole opens up another one. Even more bad news - taxation itself doesn’t even guarantee the public funds go to good public use - a lot of it tends to end up in private contractors’ and politicians’ pockets. That’s why roads are crumbling and infrastructure is failing.
Think about it. Would you say no to a billionaire? There’s a world-famous Korean game show based on the premise that most people would do anything for just the proximity to a fortune that large. Sure, if the ask was humiliating enough, and you had some integrity, maybe you’d refuse. Maybe. Let’s say the ask is just to walk up to the Senate floor and cast a “no” vote on a minimum wage bill. It’s a lot easier to say “yes” when the harm you’re doing is not in front of you. It’s also easier to eat a steak when you don’t have to look the cow in the face. The American people are deep in the factory farm of wealth inequality, working harder and getting less and less for it. Will we go silently into the slaughterhouse?
Our next story is about an American worker who did say “no” to inequality.
Robert Smalls was born into slavery in 1839 in Beaufort, South Carolina. At the age of 12 his mother was able to get him hired out as a laborer (a more promising opportunity compared to life as a field hand) in the city of Charleston, where he worked a string of odd jobs that led him to the Charleston wharves. Smalls eventually found work as a helmsman, although the antebellum South didn’t allow enslaved people to hold that title officially - he was only ever allowed to be “wheelman”. Nonetheless, he gained a deep knowledge of Charleston’s harbor and the ship he helmed, the appropriately-named CSS Planter.
In 1861 the Civil War broke out. Smalls continued working aboard the Planter, ferrying supplies and troops across the waterways of the nascent Confederacy. In the course of his duties, Smalls, now 22, noticed the Union blockade a few miles out to sea. So he hatched a plan.
The Planter’s captain, one Charles J. Relyea, had the kind of idiot confidence in his enslaved crew that only a Confederate can have. You have to remember, these people literally believed that Black people liked working for free, being whipped, castrated, sexually assaulted, murdered or sold off when no longer useful. Seems odd today, but the US nearly ceased to exist over this. Robert Smalls, for his part, had had enough of this whole slavery thing.
From Harper’s Weekly, June 14 1862:
One of the most daring and heroic adventures since the war commenced was undertaken and successfully accomplished by a party of negroes in Charleston on Monday night last. Nine colored men, comprising the pilot, engineers, and crew of the rebel gun-boat Planter, took the vessel under their exclusive control, passed the batteries and forts in Charleston harbor, hoisted a white flag, ran out to the blockading squadron, and thence to Port Royal, via St. Helena Sound and Broad River, reaching the flag-ship Wabash shortly after ten o'clock last evening.
Captain Relyea and his sailors frequently took unauthorized leave, trusting their enslaved crew to keep things in order. That night, Smalls loaded up the Planter with his and the Black crew members’ families, steered it past the Charleston fort guns by wearing a characteristic straw hat, folding his arms and assuming the authoritative posture of a captain2, all while flashing the correct naval signals. If he lost his nerve or gave the wrong signal, the Planter and everyone aboard would have been torn to shreds. Luckily in the night, the harbor guards assumed Smalls was a white man and raised no alarm - until the Planter was out of gun range and well on her way to Union custody. Genius.
Smalls was almost immediately admitted into the US Navy. First he was made pilot of the USS Keokuk, which returned to Charleston for attacks on Fort Sumter. Smalls was present for 17 battles during the Civil War, and eventually rose to the rank of Major General, after having been made captain of the (now USS) Planter - even sailing her to meet up with General Sherman at the end of his “March to the Sea”. Robert Smalls personally witnessed and contributed heavily to the destruction of the Confederacy and the institution of slavery.
After the war, Smalls learned to read, opened a business in Philadelphia, and returned to South Carolina to open a railroad line and newspaper, the Beaufort Southern Standard. Then he bought some real estate - his former owner’s house, which he (quite graciously) allowed his former owner’s wife to live in until her death, and a two-story building for use as a school to teach Black children. Robert Smalls still wasn’t done - he was then elected to the US House of Representatives, where he served for years before retiring.
Even near the end of his life, he never stopped being awesome. From Wikipedia:
In 1913, in one of his final actions as community leader, he played an important role in stopping a lynch mob from killing two black suspects in the murder of a white man. He pressured the mayor, saying that blacks he had sent throughout the city would burn the town down if the mob was not stopped. The mayor and sheriff stopped the mob.
Robert Smalls was someone who punched far above his weight in all aspects of life, and it’s a shame more people don’t know about him. It’s not hard to guess why, though.
Facebook has rebranded to Meta. In Hebrew, “meta” means “dead” - a very palpable irony nowadays, as it seems everyone really hates Facebook. You’re probably already familiar with the Facebook Papers - the trove of internal documents given by ex-employee Frances Haugen’s legal team to reporters and the US government - and the resulting testimony before Congress as to Facebook’s abuses of power and promotion of mental illness among teenagers, among other things. The list of problems is long. So Facebook does what anyone accused of wrongdoing would do: change your name and appearance and pretend nothing happened. Nice.
Meta is a reference to the concept of the Metaverse: an immersive, VR-based 3D internet. Facebook envisions us strapped into Oculuses, interacting with virtual avatars and beaming in and out of interconnected VR worlds the same way you might click a link to a website. And it’s not just Facebook facilitating this Great Leap Indoors. Most of the large tech companies are pushing us toward a world where all human activity occurs on VR devices and in digital spaces mediated by instant access to everything and the ability to escape into a glorious digital world of - well, mostly ads. Don’t even get us started on Neuralink. Babylon ting.
The metaverse sounds like it will consist of technocratic-elite circles of people wearing headsets and pretending to be in made-up worlds because real life is unbearable - in other words, a worse internet. All of your material necessities can be delivered to your home and presumably eventually spoon-fed to you by some itinerant gig-worker for less than subsistence wages (and definitely no healthcare). It’s like The Matrix, except the people in it want to be in it, it’ll be a status symbol, and the people who aren’t in it will just be replaceable, disposable drones. Who will probably be replaced and disposed of by - you guessed it - drones. It’s actually bleaker than The Matrix, because at least there we were useful as batteries.3
We at The Desk are huge fans of ancient 20th century rituals like “going outside” and “talking to people”. Real weirdo stuff.
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Zack Fox’s “shut the fuck up talking to me” is the trap album we didn’t know we needed. The Eric Andre of rap is proving that he’s clearly more than just a joke rapper, but there were still a ton of hilarious lines on this album like “I was so broke eating oxygen sandwiches”, and “Took off the top like a Kennedy”. The beats really make it worth listening to - some of them sound like they were lifted straight out of 3 6 Mafia’s catalog. Producer Kenny Beats delivers as always. Blast it while you cruise through Atlanta in a ‘87 Buick. Or whatever the Metaverse equivalent of Atlanta will be. (Spotify / Apple)
Frederick Ziv’s 1957 series “Tombstone Territory” is a must-watch if you like westerns. Fans of shows like Rawhide and Tales of Wells Fargo will appreciate the series’ focus on narrative over gunslinging, despite taking place in the same Arizona town as the famous OK Corral gunfight. We really like the fact that Tombstone episodes are based on real articles written in the Tombstone Epitaph newspaper during the 1880s. (The Roku Channel)
Maybe in the future, The Desk letters might be adapted into shows about old America in the 2020s.
Halloween Costume Roundup
A group of friends dressed as the entire cast of Living Single
The “Dad Fargo” family
A guy whose costume was an actual camera
The American people seem convinced, but we elect representatives and senators who spend more time fundraising than legislating. A not-insignificant number of them receive lobbying funds from large corporations threatened by tax hikes.
Talk about overcoming impostor syndrome!