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AB 5 Is Better Than You Think

December 18, 2019
AB 5 Is Better Than You Think

1. AB 5

If you follow the industry of media you may have noticed the news that SB Nation—a division of Vox Media—has issued a big editorial change in order to comply with California’s AB 5 law.

Quick background:

  • SB Nation uses a legion of freelance contributors to feed content into a slew of verticals, each built around a single fan-base.
  • These freelance contributors were paid some trivial fee for their work.
  • The combined efforts amounted to a giant sports content mill, which, combined with other economic pressures, helped to kill professional print sports journalism as we knew it.
  • AB 5 says you can’t pay people as “contractors” when they’re doing the equivalent of full- or part-time work.
  • So SB Nation is going to stop paying its freelancers. It is unclear how this will change the volume of content on SB Nation sites.

In general, the Internet seems to think that AB 5 is a very bad idea. Stratechery’s Ben Thompson argues that AB 5 is necessarily a failure because it is an attempt to monkey with the “brutal reality of publishing economics on the Internet.” Which are, as Thompson correctly notes:

  • First, there is an effectively infinite supply of content
  • Second, there is a limited amount of demand (there are only 24 hours in the day)
  • Third, website display advertising is less efficient than Google or Facebook

He’s right! And here’s Thompson’s conclusion:

AB 5 is not simply fatally flawed because it is overly expansive in the industries it targets; it is fatally flawed because it is designed to deny the fundamental reality of the Internet, for both better and worse.

But in this, I would argue that Thompson (and many others) are not necessarily right.

Not to go all Comrade Warren on you, but a huge part of the American project has been to harness forces for good, while attempting to mitigate their downsides.

The most obvious example is America’s relationship with capitalism and the free market.

For instance, left unchecked, the free market tends toward consolidation and monopoly. Over the last hundred years or so, the liberal project has been to take full advantage of the power of markets while also taking steps to prevent the kinds of market outcomes that tend toward anti-competitiveness and societal loss.

We have a whole bunch of laws about this. Not just concerning monopoly, but about how labor is allowed to organize and how taxes are assessed and how pensions are secured. We have laws regulating how banks operate and the trading and allocation of capital. We have this giant entitlement system—Social Security and Medicare—that goes on top of the labor market and the broader economy because we don’t trust capitalism to adequately care for workers.

And we have all basically agreed that while the free market has no real need for the nation state, or for people—we want the free market to serve the people and the country. Not the other way around

All of which is to say that when it came to the free market, America did not say, “Well geez. Some of the stuff is good and some is bad and we’ve just got to take it all. Can’t try to regulate away the bad outcomes because they’re part of the fundamental deal. That’s the fundamental reality of capitalism!”

So why is it that we would throw our hands in the air with the internet and say, “Hey, sorry. Can’t try to mediate any of the bad outcomes because that’s just the fundamental reality of the internet.”

This isn’t to say that AB 5, specifically, is a good idea. (Or a bad idea.) I don’t know. Odds are that it’s sub-optimal.

But we’ve been dealing with the economic effects of the internet for barely 25 years. I would be surprised if we’d already figured out the optimal way to regulate this new technology.

After the industrial age began, it took close to a century to figure out how to manage markets and we still haven’t perfected it, though things are, in general, much more optimized today than they were in, say, 1910.

The point is that you have to start experimenting somewhere and AB 5 is as good a place as any. We should expect to have more regulatory failures than successes, but that’s okay. Because the failures can be temporary while the successes are additive.

We won’t be able to regulate away all of the negative effects of the internet. But we shouldn’t assume that we can’t bring some of them to heel.

One of the great projects of government for the next few generations will be figuring out the optimal ways to manage the effects of internet technologies.

Might as well start now.

2. Bernie

Bernie Sanders is having a moment.

It’s weird to say that because the guy won almost half the primary votes in 2016 and has been solidly in second place more or less for the entirety of this campaign.

I’ve argued for months that Joe Biden was underestimated. But Bernie has been really, really underestimated. I get the sense that basically no one has really considered the possibility that he might be the Democratic nominee.

That sounds like a good thing for Bernie. Now is the time to get your first look!

But I think it’s actually kind of bad. Because the truth is, for a guy with as much baggage as he has, now is definitely not the time to be getting your first look from voters.

It would have been much, much, much better had he been vetted, say, back during the summer.

My spirit animal / cosmic twin Noah Rothman wrote a typically brilliant piece about this earlier this week in which he suggested that maybe Bernie has kind of some . . . uh . . . Corbynite problems?

Which is to say, even before you get to Medicare for All, and Eat the Rich, and general election problems, there’s a big matzah ball hanging right there.

Here’s the thing I always say: If you were a campaign guy and you could walk into the race right now and play any hand at the table, which candidate would you want?

My view is that if you wanted to have a ton of fun, Mayor Pete is your guy, because the chance to run the longest long-shot since Carter ’76 is irresistible.

But if you want to win, Biden is still the best position to play.

3. Sicario

Amazing piece in the NYT:

The recruits filed into a clearing, where a group of trainers with the stern bearing of drill sergeants stood in a tight row, hiding something.

“How many of you have killed someone before?” one of the instructors asked. A few hands shot up.

The trainers separated, revealing a naked corpse face up in the grass. One thrust a machete into the nearest man’s hand.

“Dismember that body,” he ordered.

The recruit froze. The instructor waited, then walked up behind the terrified recruit and fired a bullet into his head, killing him. Next, he passed the blade to a lanky teenager while the others watched, dumbfounded.

The teenager didn’t hesitate. Offered the chance to prove that he could be an assassin — a sicario — he seized it, he said. A chance at money, power and what he craved most, respect. To be feared in a place where fear was currency.

“I wanted to be a psychopath, to kill without mercy and be the most feared sicario in the world,” he said, describing the scene.

Like the other recruits, he had been sent by a drug cartel known as Guerreros Unidos to a training camp in the mountains. He envisioned field exercises, morning runs, target practice. Now, standing over the body, he was just trying to suppress an urge to vomit.

He closed his eyes and struck blindly. To survive, he needed to stay the course. The training would do the rest, purging him of fear and empathy.

“They took away everything left in me that was human and made me a monster,” he said.

Within a few years, he became one of the deadliest assassins in the Mexican state of Morelos, an instrument of the cartels tearing the nation apart. By 2017, at only 22 years old, he had taken part in more than 100 murders, he said. The authorities have confirmed nearly two dozen of them in Morelos alone.

When the police caught him that year, he could have faced more than 200 years in prison. But instead of prosecuting him, the authorities saw an opportunity, a chance to pick apart the cartel from the inside. They made him the centerpiece of an off-the-books police operation that dismantled the cartel in southern Morelos, resulting in the arrest and conviction of dozens of its operatives.

Read the whole thing. This is a land of wolves now.

Jonathan V. Last

Jonathan V. Last is editor of The Bulwark.