Capitalism

imagesSomething I’ve learned from even my light reading of history is that there really are no “miraculous origins.” We humans have a tendency to claim that our creations, our governments, our religions, our ways of living, all sprang out of nowhere one fine spring morning as an act of pure genius, if not divine inspiration.

Isaac Newton was hit on the head by an apple, and invented gravity.

This kind of story is never true.

With this in mind, I’ve been pondering where “capitalism” really came from. The miraculous origin story is that when feudalism collapsed in Medieval Europe, capitalism was invented and took over because it was ever so much better than feudalism. A few centuries later, Karl Marx invented socialism, and socialism “lost” to the superior capitalism. Survival of the fittest, onward and upward, and all that.

It’s hard to talk about the origins of capitalism without first knowing what it is. What is capitalism?

As soon as you ask that question, you get some eighteenth-century definition that involves “controlling the means of production.” This doesn’t make much sense in today’s financial capitalism. Nor does it make any sense for the mercantile capitalism that preceded industrial capitalism.

I’m going to propose a surprisingly simple definition of capitalism that not only ties together everything from mercantile capitalism in the twelfth century right through intellectual property rights and high-volume stock trading today, but also eliminates the miraculous origin story, making capitalism just a variant on what people have been doing since we first developed writing.

Capitalism is the idea that ownership, in and of itself, entitles the owner to the work of others, combined with the idea that ownership can be bought and sold.

This ties capitalism directly into Medieval European feudalism: indeed, it’s where the word “entitled” comes from, in that the feudal lords held “title” to the land, and were thus “entitled” to the labors of the people who lived and worked on that land. The major difference between feudalism and capitalism is that feudal ownership — the title itself — could not legally be bought or sold: titles were hereditary, and originally granted by a higher authority, such as the King, who (of course) derived his authority from God.

The mercantile capitalism that developed concurrently with feudalism was not primarily about trade, which had been going on in many forms for millennia. It was instead about how trade was financed and profits distributed. In mercantile capitalism, the wealthy would fund a trading journey and — if it was successful — would be entitled to a substantial piece of the profits, even though their risk in the enterprise never involved a single chilled night in the deserts, or storm at sea. All they put at risk was their money. However, this front-end money entitled them to back-end profits from a successful trading journey in which they did no labor and took no personal risks.

These are not miraculous ideas. We see a similar principle at work in the biblical Parable of the Talents dating from the second or third century in Rome. It is telling that the Master in this story gave the talents (a King James English translation of a word referring to a unit of money) to his own servants, rather than entering into a contractual agreement with a third party — in other words, the money never really left the owner’s hand. But the principle that the master is entitled to the results of his servants’ work is very much present in stories from a thousand years before mercantile capitalism came along.

Skipping over the mad rush of feudal colonization of the New World in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries under various royal charters, we come to the Industrial Revolution. What distinguished the Industrial Revolution from the Medieval manufacturing guilds that preceded it, was in part the use of the new steam technology and mechanized labor, but the more important change was (again) the shift of ownership from the workers and their guilds, to an ownership class that merely bought the “means of production,” then claimed entitlement to the profits.

The first stock exchanges developed concurrently with industrial capitalism, to facilitate the buying and selling of ownership shares, and this has now evolved into our modern stock market.

The modern stock exchange is perhaps the purest example of capitalism, since it removes any pretense of anything but ownership and entitlement. When stock is first issued by a new company, there’s still an element of barter involved, in which an investor purchases a stock share in the IPO (Initial Product Offering), and the company issuing the stock gets cash. After that, it’s a pure exchange of ownership-based entitlement.

If I buy a share of IBM stock right now, IBM doesn’t see a dime of that money. I’m not paying IBM. I’m paying the previous owner of that share, and what I’m purchasing is his ownership rights. That ownership entitles me to a cut of the hard work of all of the people who try to make IBM profitable. I do no work for IBM. I provide no funds for IBM. I don’t control IBM, nor its means of production. I just get a cut of IBM profits, because I own the stock share.

My purchased ownership of the stock share, in and of itself, entitles me to the hard work and profits produced by others.

That is capitalism.

If there’s still any doubt about this, consider the opposite. Consider any economic system in which, say, the business owner is not entitled to profits derived from that business. It’s hard to imagine how that could be called capitalism. Likewise, if an owner is not allowed to buy or sell his capital assets — an inheritance system, like feudalism, or state ownership of fascist or communist or imperial flavor — the system clearly isn’t capitalism.

Capitalism is a strange method of distributing profits, but not that much stranger than other methods people have tried. We could distribute all the profit to the guy who wears the purple-trimmed toga. We could distribute it to the poor. We could distribute it by lottery to whoever pulls the right Powerball numbers. We could distribute it back to the gods, in a giant potlatch ceremony. We could even distribute it back equitably to the people who actually worked to make it happen.

Capitalism distributes it to the ownership class.

It’s worth also defining a capitalist. As an –ism, capitalism allows us to call a capitalist anyone who believes in capitalism; anyone who supports the practice and possibly the spread of capitalism as an economic system. That would include many beggars living on charity, dreaming of owning their own billion-dollar corporation someday, as well as government or military leaders who are actively involved in spreading capitalism by force of arms, though they themselves live on tax money.

But the more substantive definition is that a capitalist is someone who practices capitalism. So what do you need to practice capitalism?

A capitalist must own something that can bought or sold, that entitles him to the work of others.

If you own an automobile factory, you are a capitalist. If you own a small business with employees, you are a capitalist. If you own rental properties, you are a capitalist. If you own stocks, bonds, or other “financial instruments” that produce income, you are a capitalist. If you own profitable land worked by others, you are a capitalist. If you can live on that income produced by others, you are a full-time capitalist. If you get rich at it, you are a successful capitalist.

Working for a capitalist does not make you a capitalist, regardless of your level of income or prestige. If you are CEO of a company owned by others, you are no more a capitalist than a shop foreman or one of the janitorial staff. You’re just another employee, albeit one who gets a nicer paycheck and parking spot.

Being self-employed does not make you a capitalist. I was a business-of-one contractor for sixteen years, and while I went through all the motions of owning a business, I was not, in fact, a capitalist. I was more like a Medieval artisan: I owned my own tools, and I produced products based on customer requests. What I did was not substantially different from the work of a cobbler or a tinker or a toymaker, though what I produced was not tangible, but instead software baubles for the wealthy capitalists who were willing to pay for them.

On one contract, I negotiated royalties on the product I developed, and in that one case, I acted as a capitalist. It was not terribly rewarding.

It’s perhaps also worth making the point that the capitalist is entitled to income purely on the basis of ownership, not merit. Merit, in general, has nothing to do with capitalism.

Successful capitalists are well-known for claiming that they earned their riches, and most of them seem to actually believe it. In the case of most small businesses, it’s likely even true. But the great capitalist moguls and barons and other royalty most certainly did not earn their wealth. It was the employees of the businesses and properties that they own who earned their wealth for them. They merely collected it, via the entitlement that their ownership offered them.

Consider Bill Gates, founder of Microsoft. According to Google, in 2013 he received almost twelve billion dollars in income, which is around six million dollars per hour, assuming he works a normal laborer’s 40-hour week. By comparison, it would take one of his engineers roughly forty years to make what Bill makes in one hour. Does Bill Gates do forty years of engineering work in one hour? Does he do this five times a week, for fifty weeks of the year? Did he earn his twelve billion in 2013?

Of course not. He is entitled to this money, by virtue of his ownership interest in the Microsoft company. He could simply transfer this ownership to me, and once the ink was dry and the lawyers and tax vultures done with the niceties, I would suddenly be entitled to twelve billion dollars a year, in return for exactly nothing.

I’m not questioning Bill Gates’ entitlement to his wealth. He is entitled to it. That is precisely what capitalism is all about.

In a subsequent post, I’ll explore the core problem with capitalism.

In Defense of (Some) Bubbles

There’s a lot of talk on the Internet right now about confirmation bias.

I’ve put a lot of effort into looking “outside my bubble,” or outside my circle of confirmation bias. I’m actually pretty good at talking with people from the “other side” of various issues. It isn’t that hard — at least, not after nearly forty years of (professionally) trying to suspend confirmation bias long enough to dig out what is really causing a piece of software to malfunction.

But when it comes to the so-called conservative/liberal divide, while I can go through all the same steps, when I get to the bottom — well, it’s more work, because people are evasive in ways that hardware and software are not, and in the end, it’s always a bitter disappointment.

One example in particular stands out in my mind. I wrote something, and a reasonably articulate fellow called me a fool and a lot of other things, including a “typical liberal.” I engaged him in conversation: real conversation. I asked questions. Lots of questions. I did not challenge the truth of anything he said. I asked him to clarify things I didn’t understand. I repeated back what I thought he had said, in my own words, and allowed him to correct me. I really tried to gain a coherent understanding of his point of view.

In the end, I succeeded.

He offered the key by volunteering that, really, the basis for what he was saying was that he believed in Satan as a literal manifestation of pure evil, and that Satan was in control of the President of the United States.

If what he believed about Satan was true, then his conclusions were not entirely unreasonable. I understood his point of view.

Of course, if what he believed about Satan was not true, then his conclusions were bat-shit crazy.

I write a little fiction, mostly sci-fi and urban fantasy, and a big part of world-building is starting from bizarre premises — say, telepathic dragons at the top of a food chain that includes humans — and working your way through to what human society would look like under those conditions. Would we even bother to build cities? Would we live underground? Would we sacrifice virgins and worship the Great Worms, or would we fight against them, or would we just shrug and say, “Well, at least he didn’t eat me,” and go on about our business?

So yes, I can absolutely go there: a world where Satan really exists and controls whoever gets into the Office of the President. It’s actually kind of an interesting premise.

But is it real?

No.

Seriously. It’s not real.

Satan does not control the President of the United States, though the next-best-thing, Monsanto, has inordinate influence. But Monsanto is not actually Satan. They have chemists working for them, not imps, for God’s sake. And no pentacle or hexagram or binding spell or prayer of any sort will limit the destruction that neonicotinoids wreak on honey bee populations.

“But how do you know it’s not true?” the true believer asks. The answer is that, if it were true, it wouldn’t work out the way it has.

I’ve just read Fred Clark’s The Anti-Christ Handbook. Fred is a devout Evangelical, and he has deemed the book, Left Behind, by Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins, the worst book ever written. I haven’t read Left Behind — I got over my interest in Rapture porn back in the 1970’s, and really don’t want to go there again, ever. But after reading Fred’s passage-quotes from the book and his hilarious chapter-by-chapter analysis — call it Mystery Apocalypse Theater 3000 — I have to concur with him. Left Behind has to be the worst book ever written.

I don’t know how Left Behind ever got published, much less go on to become one of the biggest best-sellers of all time. The writing itself is … well, “putrid” is entirely too timid a word, and “horrific” conjures images of something far more interesting than the writing deserves. It’s just bad writing. Really bad writing. But in the end, as Fred points out, the single thing that Left Behind accomplishes, and does quite well, is to establish, beyond any shadow of doubt, that the Premillennial Dispensationalist Rapture and the events supposedly prophesied to follow could never, ever happen. The Rapture might — the fantasy-writer in me allows for that — but it would set into motion a chain of events that would render every subsequent “prophecy” completely impossible.

It’s like writing a story where you say, “On Thursday, aliens blew the planet Earth to smithereens. <new paragraph> The next morning, John was irritated that his bus, the 14th-Street crosstown, was a full ten minutes late, and he had a very important presentation for a prospective new client.”

We can suspend our disbelief in aliens long enough to accept the premise that they might blow the Earth to smithereens on a Thursday morning. But if they do, John is not going to be “irritated” that his usual bus is late, much less ten minutes late — implying that it’s still running its route, despite the fact that the East end of 14th Street now sticks out about ten feet into the vacuum of outer space. Assuming John has survived at all, the last thing on his mind will be impressing a potential client who is most likely a charred corpse floating, frozen, in an independent orbit around the sun. If a bus ever shows up, it will be something like ten billion years late and driven by something with six arms, and John won’t be around for that.

This story about Satan controlling the President isn’t true, because it doesn’t make any sense. What’s Satan doing up there? Biding his time, setting the stage for his Big Get-Down Evil Plan by — bwa-ha-ha — providing federal medical insurance exchanges for families? Right.

Even applied to Dick Cheney, one of my favorite candidates for an avatar of pure evil in US politics, it doesn’t make any sense.

I’ve grown tired of trying to make any sense of the modern conservative point of view, because every time I’ve tried, I’ve eventually hit a point where I hear that Satan controls the President, or something even more bizarre. I’m tired of venturing into those waters, and trying to understand the crazy.

I no longer think there’s anything out there but the crazy.

So I’m going to stay in a bubble of not-crazy, and call it good.

Sourdough and wine

Unknown-1Marta made her own sourdough late last week.

One of the best parts of homemade bread is cutting a slice while the loaf is still warm. Today, I made a sandwich with it.

Now I’ve had sourdough before, but what I’ve gotten from the grocery store and even high-end bakeries is tough. The crust — especially from bakeries — is hard enough to cut your gums if you chew too fast, and the insides are so … resilient … that by the time I’ve finished chewing, my jaw is tired. Gods help you if you have something squishy inside a sandwich made with commercial sourdough — like tuna salad, for instance. It’s like putting tuna salad between two boards. By the time you’ve gnawed through the boards, all of the tuna salad is on the plate, or all over your hands. On top of that, the bread is usually so sour that it really doesn’t taste very good — like it’s been sprayed with vinegar.

Marta’s sourdough has a crisp crust, which comes from putting water on it while it bakes (same trick, different recipe, produces bagels and pretzels). But it isn’t dangerous to bite into. And the chewy part is, indeed, chewier than her normal bread, but only a bit more — you could actually make a tuna salad sandwich with it, and not need a fork and chainsaw. There’s a touch of vinegar in the taste, as there should be, but the prevalent flavor is dough, not sour.

It got me to thinking.

Because, you see, exactly the same thing happened with beer in the Colorado microbreweries I used to frequent, before I moved to northern California. In the beginning, the microbreweries made good beer. No, they made damn fine beer. Better than anything I could make, so I stopped brewing beer. But then something happened. I think all the breweries started trying to differentiate their products, and somehow, this turned into a race to produce the hoppiest beers, meaning (in practice) the bitterest beers, as measured in IBUs, or International Bitterness Units. So the early signature microbrews, with an IBU of maybe 20 on the 100-point scale, started to give way to brews with an IBU of 90. This could be qualified subjectively as, “So bitter, it will give you lockjaw.”

I remember that wines went the same way, for a while. Merlots — which are named after the variety of grape they are made from — normally have a pretty high tannin content compared to other red wine grapes, which gives something called “oak” to the wine. This is doubtless because oak wood is also very high in tannins, so much so that (as I recall from the novel My Side of the Mountain, which I read when I was very young), you can soak a rabbit hide in water pooled in an old oak stump to tan the hide into leather. When you drink an oaky wine, it manifests as a “dry” sensation in your mouth, like your mouth is turning to leather. Shortly after Merlots became popular as a gateway wine for newcomers to the red wine scene, it seemed to turn into a free-for-all about who could produce the oakiest Merlot. There are now some Merlots out there that are so oaky, your tongue will cleave to the roof of your mouth and you will be unable to speak for a week. It’s almost a practical joke.

Which then takes me back to graduate school. One of the popular dining-out places — as a graduate student, we ate out all the time, because (basically) no one’s living arrangement allowed for cooking — was a little Chinese restaurant in a strip-mall next to the big Huntington Mall near Stony Brook. They did have excellent food, but the students and professors got into a kind of informal competition regarding the capsaicin content of the food. Or, in other words, how “hot” can you take it? Of course, like any good competition, there has to be a scale, which turns out to be the Scoville Scale. The Jalapeño pepper, the mainstay of “hot” when I was growing up, has a Scoville score of a mere 1000-4000. There’s a pepper called a “Carolina Reaper” with a score of 2.2 million, according to Wikipedia. Much higher than that, and they start comparing it to chemicals with the letters “toxin” in the name. I don’t know where some of those meals came in on the Scoville Scale, but I’d guess well north of 100,000. They say of such meals that you should eat the food with marbles — that way, when you are sitting on the toilet the next day, the marbles will splash the water and cool the afterburn.

What is it about people?

I’m declaring the “snarf rule.” If it’s a good (or great) wine, or beer, or food, you should be able to snarf it. Guzzle the wine. Chug the beer. Stuff your face with the food after working all day in the yard and skipping lunch, and then give forth an appreciative belch.

I’m not saying you should actually do this, or even that you should want to. But you should be able to.

If the thought fills you with a kind of horror, and the sense that maybe you need to check the fine print on your medical insurance policy, then the wine, or the beer, or the food is perhaps not nearly as good as you are trying to pretend it is.

Come to think of it, this is probably not a bad rule for a lot of life….

Symphony is Finished

UnknownAll four movements are up on the music page, now, in the correct order.

The fourth movement is a short night, and a glorious dawn. The opening clarinet harkens back to the child falling asleep at the end of the second movement. Night has fallen, and deep in the woods, the drums begin their fitful call as the night drummers find their places. They drum through the night until the first birdcalls of the false dawn. And then, finally, the sun rises.

Composing this, then performing and recording it with Themon’s Electrophilharmonic Orchestra II, has been quite a trip for me.

I remember my first composer’s competition: the 1972 Wyoming Music Teachers’ Association held one, which solicited compositions from junior high school students around the state. I’m not sure I placed that year, but I placed in the 1973 competition and got to perform the work, a little two- or three-minute piano piece.

By the time college came around, I was just too busy to do any composing, and in those days, of course, there was no Themon’s Electrophilharmonic Orchestra or anything like it. The closest then would have been the old MOOG synthesizer (introduced in 1967, and used by Wendy Carlos to create the album, Switched-On Bach.) A synth was no more affordable than renting out an orchestra in those days. So composing meant you either wrote solo works for an instrument you could play, or you gathered musicians, just to find out what it really sounded like. The more ambitious the work, the more the investment required for (and by) the musicians.

A full symphony was pretty much out-of-reach. It was a kind of catch-22. You could not attract the musicians for a performance unless you had a good reputation. But you could not get a good reputation without successful performances.

It had always been that way. Beethoven had no trouble pulling together his ninth symphony, a technical monstrosity with a large orchestra, a full choir, and four soloists — but his first symphony, which was performed when he was just thirty years old, was his “break” into the composing business, and I suspect it was rather more difficult to get that one performed.

It’s different, now. Someone with more experience than I have could do a much better job of performing this, and a good sound engineer could make it sound like honey and roses. But all by myself, I can — after struggling through the manuals and a bunch of trial and error — pull off a creditable symphonic performance and share it with people.

And that is simply amazing.

I hope you all enjoy the result.

An Open Letter to Old White Conservatives

I get it.

You remember growing up in a world where your father had a stable job, Mom stayed home to raise the kids, you had a house and a car and a television and walked to school, and no one thought twice about you rocketing out the door on a Saturday morning with a “Going to Ronnie’s back for lunch love you!” shouted over your shoulder.

You see all the bad news today, the school shootings, the beheadings in Syria, the constant rise in grocery prices while the official “inflation” remains zero and “cost of living” increases  never happen; you see the disappearing middle class, the hardworking class, your class, and the declining hopes for a better world for your children. You’re scared, you’re angry, and you want someone to do something for God’s sake!

I feel the same way. Exactly the same way.

Here’s the problem. We’ve been lied to. All of us. Wholesale.

We’ve been told all our lives that capitalism is what brought us our idyllic childhoods.

The truth is, capitalism is what came before our childhoods. In fact, for most of us, it came before our parents’ childhoods.

Capitalism is also what came after we entered the workforce, right about the time everything started going downhill.

What we had during our childhood — what we all grew up with — was democratic socialism.

It’s especially interesting to read what our grandparents and great-grandparents had to say about capitalism and capitalists. Unless your family name is Astor or Rockefeller, what your great-grandparents had to say about capitalists was not fit for children’s ears. They said that the rich robbed the poor; they said that wealth corrupted politics, and made a mockery of justice; they said that prosperity for the common man was a bad joke or an impossible dream, or both.

They had more than idle complaints. They walked off their jobs. They had sit-ins to prevent other workers from using their tools and machinery. They sabotaged the machinery so that no one could use it. They armed themselves.

They also got beaten, shot, and killed. By private cops, like the well-known Pinkerton Agency. By city cops. By the US Army. But conditions under the capitalists were so bad, so frankly unlivable, that they kept striking, rebelling, organizing, and raising Hell, to the point that Franklin Roosevelt, in the 1930’s, in the midst of an unparalleled economic catastrophe brought about by the capitalists, was advised by the capitalist class — from which he came, and which he represented — to suspend the Constitution and establish a fascist dictatorship in the US, as was already happening in Italy, Germany, Spain, and Portugal.

Instead, Franklin Roosevelt pushed through a limited form of democratic socialism.

That is what all of us old white folk grew up with. Democratic socialism. Not capitalism.

In the 1950’s, the political class and the capitalists decided to simply appropriate our American form of democratic socialism and call it “capitalism,” and then compare it (loudly) to the totalitarian socialism over in the Soviet Union. Totalitarian socialism in the USSR was a disaster: it was as big a disaster as the democratic socialism in the US was a success.

In the 1980’s, the capitalists — with the help of government — started to dismantle democratic socialism in the US, to try to bring back capitalism of exactly the same sort that existed in the 1880’s. The US has grown more capitalistic every decade since 1980.

And everything has gradually gone to shit.

This is not a coincidence.

So when you look to someone like Donald Trump as your Great White Hope because he is a capitalist, you should understand that he is not going to bring back the America of your childhood. He is going to bring you — if he can — the America of your great-grandparents’ childhoods: the kind of place your great-grandparents fought and died to end, because they frankly had nothing left to lose: the capitalists had taken it all from them, and wanted more.

By looking to capitalism to save us, you are throwing gasoline on a burning house. You are putting a fox in the henhouse to guard the hens. You are hiring a pedophile as a babysitter.

You will not be pleased with the outcome.

If you want your great-grandparents’ capitalism back — the thing they fought to end — vote for Trump.

If you want to continue the decline of the past few decades, vote for Hillary or any of the other Republicans.

If you want to return to the America of your childhood, an America with a future for our children, vote for Bernie.