What’s wrong with capitalism?

Two principle complaints about capitalism are that it perpetuates inequity of wealth and that it both causes and worsens poverty. While these might seem to be two sides of the same coin, they are not the same complaint at all. In fact, when advocates of socialism combine these two complaints into one argument, they are working to undermine the very strength of capitalism, its reason for existence.

People once believed that wealth is stagnant, that if one person gains wealth, another person must lose wealth. Adam Smith demonstrated that labor adds value, and that wealth is not stagnant. When capitalism works as intended, everyone benefits. Competition between the wealthy business owners helps their customers to have more choices and also provides their workers with more opportunities to earn wages and improve their lives and those of their families.

God in his creation (or Nature, if you prefer) did not make all people the same. Some people are stronger than others. Some are more physically attractive than others. Some are smarter than others—and there are various kinds of intelligence, so that one person may excel in one kind of thinking while the next is better in a different intellectual field. To hold that all people are created equal is not to hold that everyone must have the same advantages and the same benefits. The fact that some people are born into wealthy families and others are born into poor families is neither the fault of capitalism nor a reason to abandon capitalism. We are all different in several ways; but still we maintain that we all are created equal.

Deuteronomy 15 teaches that, if all people followed God’s commands, there would be no poverty. The same chapter warns us that the poor will always be with us. Capitalism might seem contrary to Christian and humanist principles of loving one’s neighbor, helping those who need help, and caring for the needy and the oppressed. A wealthy capitalist seeks to increase his or her wealth. As selfish as that sounds, the capitalist actually is a servant to his or her neighbors. To increase wealth, the capitalist seeks to provide a product that consumers want or need. The capitalist seeks to make that product more desirable—higher quality, more affordable, or in some other way better. At the same time, the capitalist creates jobs, paying workers to create the product and so providing for those workers and their families.

As the Industrial Revolution emerged, wealthy capitalists found an excess of labor on their doorsteps. More and better food from overseas expanded the population, and enclosure of agricultural lands drove more poor families off the land and into the cities. Craftsworkers were overwhelmed with new competition. At the same time, business owners were using steam and steel to become more efficient, offering products that were both better quality than before and more affordable. Work moved from homes into factories. Only wealthy people could afford to maintain factories and to purchase the new machinery of steam and steel. Often they combined their wealth, creating corporations. The rich became richer, but it was not inevitable that the poor had to become poorer.

I tell my history students that, for every Jane Austen novel they read, they must also read a Charles Dickens novel. Dickens captured the problems of the Industrial Revolution vividly in his fiction. Women and children worked in factories, because they would accept less money for their labor and would cause fewer problems for their managers. A large underclass of unemployed men frequently turned to crime, both out of need and out of boredom. Cities were dirty, overcrowded, and dangerous. Disease ran rampart through the population. For these reasons, nineteenth century socialists predicted the overthrow of capitalism. They expected working people to rise up and demand their rights, including a larger share of the wealth to which their labor was contributing.

Before the Industrial Revolution, families worked together, whether raising food on the land or producing crafts such as shoes, clothing, and candles. Women often were members of guilds, equal to men active in the same crafts. Factories tore apart families. They separated adults from children and women from men. Over time, the dream of the Victorian family developed: the family in which the man was the sole worker and breadwinner, the children went to school and played at home, and the women stayed home to raise a family. This idyllic picture never represented reality for most of the population. But, over time, society and government began to work in that direction. Labor laws took children out of the factories and put them in schools. Other laws began to clean the cities, reducing industrial pollution and untreated sewage. The free market found means of regulating itself so that capitalism did not imply poverty for the working class. More about this will be said in a future post. J.

We interrupt this program…

When we bought this house, the previous owners submitted a disclosure through their realtor which assured the buyer, among other things, that the house was not subject to insect infestation. I am unsure what definition of “insect” the previous owners had in mind. We have enjoyed the Parade of Ants Festival every spring in our kitchen. We have battled gnats and houseflies, wasps and moths, crickets and cockroaches. In addition to insects, we have also hosted spiders—including a tarantula in the garage and a black widow by the water heater—and scorpions—four individual visits within a dry twelve-month period. This time of year especially the insects creep in from outdoors to avoid the falling temperatures.

We resist as well as we can. We try to keep the house clean, not leaving dirty dishes in the sink, not allowing too much dust to accumulate in the corners and under furniture. For cockroaches, we purchase those lovely poison bait boxes. They crawl into the boxes, eat the poison, then leave again to die some time later in some dark and distant corner.

Unfortunately, this year my Mr. Coffee machine has become the corner where poisoned cockroaches go to die.

Today was not the first time I found a dead cockroach in the coffeemaker. This time it was right at the top, clearly visible when I took out the basket to make coffee. I unplugged the coffeemaker and shook the dead insect into the garbage; then I inspected the inside more carefully and saw a second dead cockroach wedged into the drain. It required the tip of the breadknife to dislodge that roach. Then I rinsed the coffeemaker thoroughly, three times, successfully removing a third dead insect with the first rinsing. All that time I am coughing and gagging. I have a strong gag reflex, one that is closely linked to my imagination, so I cannot deal with dead insects near my food supply without making a lot of disgusting noises.

[Cultural reference #1: while cleaning out the coffeemaker this morning, I continually made the kind of noises Malcolm McDowell made while portraying Alex in A Clockwork Orange. For those of you who have not seen this movie, this mention is not a recommendation! But those who have seen the movie will understand when I say that, for me, the most revolting scene in the movie is when the parole officer drinks from the glass containing Mum’s teeth. Even typing a description of that scene, I cannot stop my stomach from churning.]

[Cultural reference #2: when dealing with dead cockroaches, my family and I tend to make jokes about Gregor, the main character in Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis. I do recommend that book to anyone who has not read it. However, this morning, alone in the kitchen, I made no Gregor jokes.]

 I respect insects and their place in the environment. Unfortunately, the place of cockroaches is not in Mr. Coffee. Mr. Coffee does his job just fine without the help of insects. If I want to add protein to my diet, a slice of bacon will do just as well. I now return you to your regularly-scheduled programming, already in progress. J.

Stepping back to see the big picture (socialism, continued)

The idea of socialism arose as a response to the Industrial Revolution and to some of the problems within that Revolution. In turn, the Industrial Revolution was a consequence of several large historical movements that came together in a particular time and place to shape human history.

When historians seek to understand and explain an event or a movement, they must take a step back and look at the broader picture. Often this requires further steps back, sometimes to view the entire panorama of history. Analyzing the causes of the Industrial Revolution includes such steps and such a view.

The Persian Empire, Mauryan Empire, Han Empire, and Roman Empire each constructed roads to facilitate government communication across their stretches of land and to accommodate the travel of armies. As a result of those roads (and associated waterways), merchants and merchandise began to flow through and beyond these empires. Imperial governments favored the exchange of merchandise, since it could be taxed every time it changed hands. Two thousand years ago, Italian glass could be bought in China, and Chinese silk could be bought in Italy. Anything that could be moved, bought, and sold traveled along these roads and waterways: fabrics, spices, precious metals and gems, artwork, food, livestock, and slaves. Over the centuries, travel and trade ebbed and flowed because of other political and economic conditions. Along the same routes traveled ideas—religious ideas, political and economic ideas, and technology—and disease also spread from culture to culture along the same roads.

Genghis Khan’s Mongolian Empire sparked additional travel and trade along these routes. Asian produce and technology traveled into Europe. Bubonic plague (the Black Death) began somewhere in inland China but spread to the cities of China and to Mediterranean cities, and from there to all the populated areas of Europe. This disease had a devastating consequence upon commerce and economic activity, both because of the high death rate of the disease and because of the fear of disease that spread throughout the population.

Disruption of trade, caused by disease and by political developments in the eastern Mediterranean, caused western European governments to seek a shortcut to African and Asian goods, eliminating some of the middlemen. Using Asian technology, including the Chinese compass and the Arabian astrolabe, Portuguese mariners set sail down the coast of Africa and into the western ocean. Spain, England, and the Netherlands eventually followed. Early results of the Portuguese expeditions included expansion of the sugar industry and development of the African slave trade. But Columbus’ abortive attempts to cross the ocean between Spain and east Asia revealed an expanse of islands and continents in the western hemisphere. Soon commerce between the Old World and the New World brought new foods to Europe; those new foods helped to support a growing population, recovering from the plague.

As the population grew, though, landowners found that they could enclose their land for more specific use, such as the grazing of sheep to produce wool. This removed peasants from the land and from their agricultural activities, sending them into the towns and cities. The growing urban population disrupted the guilds and other work that the tradespeople had developed over centuries. More new technology met this change in population dispersion to ignite the Industrial Revolution in England.

A Chinese inventor had learned how to harness the power of a flowing river with a wheel, channeling that energy to other uses. Europeans improved the water wheel by installing it vertically instead of horizontally, effectively letting the power of gravity increase the power generated by the moving water of the river. Later, the same idea was converted to generation of power from steam, which no longer needed the immediate presence of a river.

Around the same time, a Chinese chemist found a new recipe for steel. Iron technology had begun in Anatolia (the location of modern Turkey) about three thousand years ago. Pure iron is a powder, but iron combined with carbon makes cast iron, which produced tools stronger and more durable than the stone and bronze tools used previously. (Ironworking was discovered independently in central Africa around the same time.) About a thousand years ago, a new recipe for iron and carbon produced steel, a great improvement over cast iron. The new recipe used coal instead of burnt wood as a carbon source. Coal and iron deposits both exist in China, but not near each other. In England, iron and coal and running water are found in close proximity. Deforestation of England also provided greater interest in coal, both as fuel and as an ingredient for making steel. The Industrial Revolution was ready to emerge.

As the urban population grew, new businesses began to exploit the work force to get around the guild economy of Europe. Shepherds and shearers would sell the raw wool from their sheep to moneyed peasants. These peasants would then hire some families to card the wool in their homes. The carded wool was then returned to the business owners, who hired other people to spin the wool into thread. The spinners returned the thread, which the business owners then sent to weavers, who used looms to change the thread into cloth. The cloth was chemically treated by fullers, and the improved cloth was sent to tailors, who cut the cloth into pieces and sewed it into garments. Shepherds, Shearers, Carders, Spinners, Weavers, Fullers, and Tailors were each paid for their labor, and afterward they all bought clothing from the businesses that had paid them for their work. Today many family names reflect the role of their ancestors in this industry.

Steel tools and steam power made factories possible. No longer did the work have to be sent into homes and brought back to the businesses: the businesses could own the buildings and machines where the work was done. These machines could produce far more clothing from far fewer laborers. The Industrial Revolution began in England, spread into other European countries and then to North America, and eventually filled the world. The impact of this revolution changed the lives of many people, from wealthy business owners to impoverished workers. J.

Defining socialism (and related terms)

I have written twice about socialism without taking the effort to define my terms. That shortcoming needs to be corrected.

Briefly, socialism describes a society in which the means of production are controlled by the government, or the state. This distinguishes socialism from capitalism—in which the means of production are privately owned—and communism—in which the means of production are commonly owned without control from the government or the state. Based on nineteenth century European philosophy and its aftermath, the idea of socialism can be further divided into three categories.

Means of production include any source of wealth and any production of items that are needed and wanted by members of the community. Farms are the primary means of production for most of history. Factories and businesses have become means of production in more recent times. A shoemaker’s shop, a pharmacy, and a railroad are all examples of means of production. If the government owns and operates these means, socialism is present. Mere regulation by the government of these means is not, strictly speaking, socialism (but see further development of this thought below).

Utopian socialism occurs when a group of people establishes a business or a set of businesses within a community and places them under a governing authority. Several small-scale attempts to establish utopian socialism were tried in the nineteenth century. Even some twenty-first century companies retain elements of utopian socialism—when workers are given stock in the company or other ways of receiving a share of the company’s profits, and when workers are invited to take part in the decision-making process of the company’s boards.

In many cases, utopian socialism remained dominated by the owners of the company, leading to the further subjugation of the workers. In the Pullman neighborhood of Chicago, the Lee Wilson & Company plantations of northeast Arkansas, and various other establishments and businesses, the company owners not only built factories and storehouses. They also built homes for the workers, stores where the workers shopped, schools for the children of the workers, and even churches for the workers and their families. Company owners controlled prices charged in the stores and messages delivered in the schools and churches. Company currency was paid to the workers instead of money that could be spent off company property. The detriment to workers is illustrated by the song “Sixteen Tons,” in which a worker sings, “Saint Peter, don’t you call me, ‘cause I can’t go—I owe my soul to the company store.”

Revolutionary socialism sought to prevent that lack of control by overthrowing the company owners and placing control of the companies directly into the government’s hands. A class of capitalist businessmen, politicians, and other leaders was to be attacked and stripped of power so the workers could gain full control of the means of production. The government, it was thought, would run the farms and factories and other businesses more fairly, giving more of the wealth to the workers since it was keeping less of the wealth to itself. Some revolutionary socialists, including Karl Marx, viewed revolutionary socialism as a temporary condition, one that would become communism (see below) as the government withered away, granting more control of the means of production to the workers. Other revolutionary socialists expected the government to remain, to continue to control the means of production, but to treat the workers more kindly than the capitalists had done in earlier times.

Gradual socialism hoped that the government could assume such control over the means of production without a violent uprising by the working class, and without a violent overthrow of businessmen and politicians. Through increasing government regulation, advocates of gradual socialism hoped, the government could strip capitalist businessmen of their control of the means of production, effectively placing that control in the hands of the government. Not all regulation of businesses is done with the goal of gradual socialism; much legislation has intentions that are not at all related to socialism. But proponents of gradual socialism use government regulation as a means to remove control of the means of production from business owners and to give the government full control of the national economy.

Communism differs from socialism in that the workers directly control the means of production without a government interfering with their control or making decisions on their behalf. Karl Marx wrote that revolutionary socialism would be a temporary step on the road to full communism. Because of his theories, revolutionary socialists in Russia, China, Cuba, and other places identified themselves as a Communist Party, holding out the promise that their government would concede control to the workers over time. That never happened in any of those places.

Communism can be practiced by a small group of people who combine their resources to meet all of their needs. The early Christian Church practiced that kind of communism. Wide-scale communism on a national level has never been achieved. When a revolutionary government established control of the means of production, it retained that control unless and until it was overthrown by a second revolution.

Capitalism teaches that control of the means of production must remain in the hands of the investors, who conduct their businesses for their own profit, but who compete to offer the best conditions for both workers and customers. Capitalism was historically expressed by Adam Smith in his Wealth of Nations. People used to believe that wealth was limited, that one person could gain wealth only if other people lost wealth. Smith demonstrated that labor increases value and wealth is not stagnant. If a person finds a diamond, that person has received wealth. If a person pays a jeweler to cut and shape that diamond, the gem is smaller but much more valuable. Both the finder and the jeweler become more wealthy.

Smith wrote that capitalism thrives when governments do not interfere with the economy. He defended the idea of laissez-faire, or “leave it alone.” Pure capitalism would insist that the government exercise no form of control over the means of production in the national economy. But even Smith understood that some government regulation is good, beneficial, and necessary. The result of a capitalist economy with some government participation is called free market capitalism.

In the free market, the government does regulate the means of production to a certain extent. Pollution of the air, land, and water is limited through regulation. Safety of the products sold to consumers is regulated through inspections. Safety at the workplace and other benefits for the workers are also regulated by the government. Workers and consumers both benefit from some government regulation, while investors continue to benefit from their part in the means of production and the growth of the economy.

In free market capitalism, business owners and investors benefit from competing with each other for workers and for customers. They choose how much to pay their workers and what other benefits to offer their workers. They choose how much to charge for their products, and they also make choices about the quality of their products. All of these choices are shaped by the availability and cost of raw materials, the availability of workers, and the interest of customers in their products. Workers and customers also make choices among the options offered to them. As long as businesses compete for customers and for workers, good jobs continue to be offered, and affordable, good-quality products continue to be bought and sold.

To preserve the free market, governments sometimes act to prohibit or break apart monopolies, trusts, and cartels. Such business practices limit choices for workers and customers by placing control of the means of production into the hands of too few people. Standard Oil and AT&T were divided by the government for the benefit of workers and customers; social media providers may face similar legislation in the near future. The government acts slowly and deliberately when it considers challenging a monopoly in free market capitalism. On the other hand, no agency exists to police the government when it holds control of the means of production in a socialist system. J.

Why socialism?

Given its abysmal track record, why would anyone advocate socialism today?

The reasons for suggesting socialism today are much like the reasons for proposing socialism in the nineteenth century, before it had been tried and had failed. Life is unfair. Poverty and oppression are wrong. All people deserve a fair chance to rise above their situation, to have a happy life, and to perform to the best of their abilities. Because that does not happen as often as it should, socialism was once suggested as a correction for the world’s problems. Even though socialism has failed, some people today are willing to overlook those failures and give socialism another chance, because in theory socialism addresses some of the injustices that exist in the world today.

It’s not fair that a back-up infielder can earn more money in one baseball season than a third grade teacher earns spending forty-five years in the classroom teaching children.

It’s not fair that a thousand people work in a factory forty hours a week, then go home to squalor and hunger, while the owner of the factory lives in luxury without ever having worked a day in his life (because he inherited the factory from his father).

It’s not fair that these inequalities are reinforced, to a measurable extent, by gender, ancestry, language, appearance, and zip code, not to mention physical and emotional disabilities.

Socialism promises to address these injustices, to make people equal, to eradicate poverty and its accompanying problems. Socialism promises to care for the poor and needy and oppressed, to rescue them from the clutches of greedy rich and powerful capitalists, to end their oppression and to allow them to live up to the potential of their lives as human beings.

But socialism has never kept these promises.

If wealth is to be redistributed, the first question is how it is to be divided. Should each person receive an equal amount of wealth? Should those with greater needs be given more and those with fewer needs be given less? Should those who work hard and produce more benefit for others be paid more than those who contribute less? All of these answers have been proposed, but none of them ever has been accomplished.

Compare North Korea to South Korea, and judge for yourself whether socialism reduces or increases poverty and injustice. Compare Mao’s China of 1970 to Xi’s China of 2020 and judge for yourself whether socialism heightens or lowers a nation’s wealth and the average wealth of that nation’s citizens. Consider again why people fled East Germany, North Vietnam, and Cuba—was it because they wanted to live where life is less fair, or was it because they believed that life would be better (and more fair) in a free market economy?

When Jesus said, “The poor you always have with you,” he was being realistic and not defeatist. Jesus still wants his followers to care for the poor and oppressed, for widows and orphans and foreigners among us. But Jesus was quoting Deuteronomy 15:11, which says, “There will never cease to be poor in the land.” But that verse follows closely after Deuteronomy 15:4-5, which says, “But there will be no poor among you; for the Lord will bless you in the land that the Lord your God is giving you for an inheritance to possess—if only you will strictly obey the voice of the Lord your God, being careful to do all this commandment that I command you today.” Poverty exists because people—even God’s people—have not lived the lives that God wants to see people living.

The world contains more than enough food to satisfy its population; but the food is not distributed evenly. The world contains more than enough room for everyone to live comfortably; but some people are crowded into cities and living on the streets. The world contains enough resources to meet the needs of people everywhere. Thanks to science, the food supply has grown even faster than the human population. But the world is not fair. Socialism tries to force justice upon all people, redistributing the wealth for the benefit of all. Instead, socialism supports a bureaucracy of managers while increasing rather than diminishing the misery of the workers.

Socialism claims to be a better way. Free market economies have shown themselves to be the better way. History demonstrates repeatedly that free market economies benefit more people than socialism. But some people listen only to the promises of socialism and do not consider the historic record. J.

Against socialism

I know better than to check social media at bedtime. But, for some reason, I decided to look at Facebook late Saturday evening. When I saw that my sister had shared a poster favoring socialism, my ability to sleep was entirely lost. My first impulse was to reply to her that someone must have hacked her Facebook account, that she could not possibly have intended to share that post. But instead I shut off the computer, went to bed, and tossed and turned for hours, framing the response I wanted to make to her post.

Of course, what I arranged in my head during those hours far exceeded the proper length for a Facebook comment, or even for a single WordPress post. In fact, before I fell asleep, I probably had the makings of a book arranged in my mind. I have taught college history classes. I have addressed socialism as an economic theory: its origins, its beliefs, its strategies, and its results. I have read much about socialism—in fact, this month, I have been reading the philosophical writings of John Stuart Mill, a nineteenth century philosopher who favored liberalism and who addressed the idea of socialism. I am well prepared to discuss the topic, or to write a book on the topic.

But I know how my sister operates on Facebook. She sees a poster that appeals to her, and she shares it. She has not built a consistent philosophy of history or economics or any other field; she does not try to remain consistent with her posts. At one time she will share a poster calling all people to care about each other, respect differences of opinion, and try to get along. An hour later, she will share a post describing how horrible people are who do not wear masks during this virus crisis. She is not seeking to discuss or debate positions. She would not take kindly to a corrective comment.

I wish, though, that I could persuade her to consider the history of socialism. The first time socialism was attempted on a national level was during and after the Russian Revolution, when they formed a country that they called the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR). After World War II, the Soviets exported their brand of socialism to other countries. For example, Germany was divided between the Federal Republic of Germany (aka West Germany) and the German Democratic Republic (aka East Germany). The western government adopted a free market economy, like that of the United States, the United Kingdom, France, and other western nations. The eastern government adopted a socialist economy like that of the USSR. After a few years, the eastern government had to surround western Berlin with a wall to keep the German people from fleeing socialist East Germany in preference for free-market West Germany. The wall remained until the socialist government of East Germany collapsed in 1989. Two years later, the socialist government of the USSR also collapsed, ending a seventy-year experiment in socialism—an experiment that found socialism lacking in value.

The experiment was even more decisive in east Asia. Korea was (and remains) divided between North Korea (socialist) and South Korea (free market). Presently, the South Korean economy ranks roughly tenth in the world (depending upon which measurement is chosen), while North Korea comes in at 117th. In 1949, a revolution swept through China, capturing twenty-one of its twenty-two provinces. The government of the Republic of China retreated to Taiwan and maintained a free-market economy, while the Peoples’ Republic of China fostered a socialist economy. During the twentieth century, Japan, Hong Kong, and Singapore also maintained free market economies. The results were so clear that in the 1980s, the Peoples’ Republic of China turned its back on socialism and adopted free market practices. China now has the second largest economy in the world.

Vietnam was divided as Korea and Japan were divided. Because the division happened later, Vietnamese people were permitted to relocate before the border was closed in 1954. Ninety thousand Vietnamese citizens moved from south to north, into socialist North Vietnam. One million Vietnamese citizens moved from north to south, into free market South Vietnam.

In 1959, a new, socialist government was established in Cuba. Since then, a few American citizens have tried to get into Cuba. Hundreds of thousands of Cubans have tried to leave. In 1980 alone, 125,000 fled Cuba in the Mariel boatlift. At other times, Cuban citizens have risked their lives trying to get out of socialist Cuba and into the free market United States.

Numbers do not lie. Historically, socialism is a failure. Any attempt to swing the United States from a free market economy to a socialist economy is choosing failure for the United States. I have much more to say about this. In the coming days, I will. J.

Thanksgiving patrol

Sometimes my imagination runs away with me. Since I’m a writer, that can be a good thing. Stories come from the question, “What if?” and some of those stories are worth sharing. Others belong in the trash bin. This is one of those stories.

I imagine the local police patrolling the neighborhood this Thursday, Thanksgiving Day. When they spot a house with several cars parked outside, they look more closely. Especially if they see out-of-state plates, they call for back up… and then they invade. For the good of the people, they arrest those violators of quarantine and put them in a special holding cell for the next fourteen days. Those who remain healthy are released, free to go about their business. Those who fall ill remain in quarantine until they are cured.

Can’t happen, you say? Impossible in this country? Do you remember Elian Gonzalez?

Twenty years ago, Elian, with his mother and some other relatives, escaped from Communist Cuba and fled by boat to the United States. Elain’s mother drowned during the attempt, but Elian, with other members of the family survived, and they found homes with family already living in Florida. The United States government decided that it was in the best interest of Elian to be taken away from his relatives in the United States and returned to his father in Cuba. On Easter morning they entered the house where he was staying, seized him, removed him, and started him back toward Cuba.

No, I don’t see the police and the National Guard patrolling our neighborhoods this Thanksgiving, breaking into houses and seizing families gathered to celebrate the holiday. It won’t happen—not in the land of the free and the home of the brave. But, considering all that has happened this year and all that could happen, I can imagine. I can imagine Americans calling the police to report Thanksgiving gatherings next door, then watching from behind the curtains as the house across the street is entered and the scofflaws gathered and taken away. I can imagine church services raided and ministers and congregants rounded off to prison for breaking quarantine regulations. I can imagine all this justified by the need to overcome the virus crisis and return the country to normal… whatever normal will be like after such things have happened.

It will not happen. This is just my imagination running wild. But American citizens have a responsibility to continue to treasure and protect freedom so that stories like mine remain unthinkable in our land. J.

Still disturbing, two years later

A bit over two months ago—October of 2018, to be precise—I was driving with the radio on, and I heard two songs played back to back. They sounded like they should be interspliced, as a conversation between the two singers. I created a post at that time, portraying the conversation, and describing it as “disturbing,” given the age disparity between the man and the woman. Imagine my surprise this week to find the two of them posing together on the cover of Rolling Stone. I will try to insert that picture [here]:

And here is a transcript of their songs, as they appeared on my blog two years ago:

Posted on October 26, 2018

WARNING! Some people will find this conversation offensive and disturbing.

Very disturbing.

Paul McCartney: I saw you flash a smile, that seemed to me to say

You wanted so much more than casual conversation

I swear I caught a look before you turned away

Now I don’t see the point resisting your temptation

Taylor Swift: This ain’t for the best

My reputation’s never been worse, so

You must like me for me

We can’t make

Any promises now, can we, babe?

But you can make me a drink

Paul: Did you come on to me, will I come on to you?

If you come on to me, will I come on to you?

Taylor: Dive bar on the East Side, where you at?

Phone lights up my nightstand in the black

Come here, you can meet me in the back

Dark jeans and your Nikes, look at you

Oh damn, never seen that color blue

Just think of the fun things we could do

‘Cause I like you

Paul: I don’t think I can wait like I’m supposed to do

How soon can we arrange a formal introduction?

We need to find a place where we can be alone

To spend some special time without an interruption

Taylor: This ain’t for the best

My reputation’s never been worse, so

You must like me for me

Yeah, I want you

We can’t make

Any promises now, can we, babe?

But you can make me a drink

Paul: If you come on to me, will I come on to you?

If you come on to me, will I come on to you?

Taylor: Is it cool that I said all that?

Is it chill that you’re in my head?

‘Cause I know that it’s delicate (delicate)

Is it cool that I said all that

Is it too soon to do this yet?

‘Cause…

Paul: Do, do, do, do-do, do

Do, do, do, do-do, do

Do, do, do, do-do, do

Do, do-do-do, do

“Delicate” © 2018, Taylor Swift

“Come on to me” © 2018, Paul McCartney

More choices, please

The thought that led to yesterday’s post somehow slipped my mind while I was typing yesterday. I wanted to complain that my computers’ software often seems to offer too few choices to fit the situation. For example, at work I will sometimes get a message on the screen that says, “This program is slow to respond. What do you want to do?” The only two choices are “quit” and “wait.” What if I don’t want to do either? Why isn’t “jump off the roof” one of the choices? Or, “throw computer out the winder”? How about “eat chocolate”? That would be an acceptable alternative to choosing between “quit” and “wait.”

Another blogger commented on my post about the way we adjust to technology when technology is supposed to make life easier for us. One of my coworkers has commented that every time our computer systems are improved, it takes more clicks and commands to accomplish the same tasks. Part of the cause of that problem is too many choices. But “eat chocolate” is still, somehow, missing from the programming.

The QWERTY keyboards that we all use were invented for mechanical typewriters. The most common letters are kept distant from each other to reduce the likelihood of key jams. For roughly forty years we have been using digital keyboards without keys to jam. Yet no one has successfully introduced a new keyboard with a more intuitive arrangement of letters. We all learned the QWERTY locations, and we keep teaching them to the next generation.

Many robots are designed to go places where the human body cannot go, places too small or dangerous for a human worker. Many other robots have a humanoid design. My son (a mechanical engineer) explains that robot designers often follow the human form, not because it is better, but because the robots are expected to go the same places where humans go. Therefore, they need to be able to do the same things, such as climb steps or place objects at a certain height.

When I submit a book to Kindle for publication, a number of steps have to be followed. At one point, the automation requires several steps, and they take a few minutes to complete. The suggestions on the screen go beyond “quit” and “wait”: they recommend getting a cup of coffee or making a sandwich. This is not artificial intelligence at work; this is the cleverness of human programmers who understand that the work they do is for humans and not for machines.

We remain in control. The computers exist to serve our needs, not the other way around. And “throw the computer out the window” will always be an option, even if the computer does not realize that it is so. J.

Insert clever title here

Father knows about laptop computers, cell phones, Ipads, and the like, but he sees no use for any of them. “They bring many problems and sorrows, and very little joy,” he says. He grumbles about the cost of the Internet service and about anti-virus protection. “Your computer is a tool, my boy,” he often says. “I would never keep a shovel or a hoe that costs me money to keep up-to-date, or that sometimes fails to dig when I want to dig because of some virus or some program being updated.”

That comes from “An Incomplete Stranger,” a short story I wrote and published a few years ago. It reflects my long-standing opinion about computers—when they work, they are useful tools, but much of the time they are inconvenient, annoying, and exasperating.

When I arrive at work and log into my computer, it takes ten to fifteen minutes before I can check my email, log into my timesheet, and get started at my job. Several other programs have to “do their thing” before my computer is usable or useful. Java must tell me that an update is available, and the anti-virus software has to report, and Microsoft Teams has to log in, and several other programs have their tasks or reports to accomplish. I’ve taken to leaving tasks that don’t require the computer in place at the end of the day so I can start my computer and then be productive while it tries to wake up and get ready for the day.

Meanwhile, my home computer is logging off the Internet connection at random times, requiring me to restart the computer to reestablish the connection. I have no idea why it logs off when it does; I just have to adjust my behavior accordingly.

Microsoft Word is trying to make me a better writer. It consistently suggests “must” in the place of “have to,” “can” in the place of “is able to,” and “whether” instead of “whether or not.” Sometimes I agree with the suggestions; sometimes I like the rhythm of my longer phrases better than Word’s terse Heminwayesque style. The other day it helped me to spell “dysfunctional” correctly; it seemed to me that the word ought to begin with “dis-,“ and the correct spelling seems… well, it just does not seem to work.

Science fiction has for years conveyed warnings about allowing the machines to take over the world. Captain Kirk and Doctor Who regularly encountered societies where humans had become the slaves and computers were doing all the thinking. Kirk had a particular knack for talking a computer to death. Artificial intelligence may compete successfully with human intelligence in some areas—chess, for example—but it remains far less creative and flexible than the human mind.

People and their machines will always have a partnership in the world. In theory, machines could replace and exterminate humanity. In reality, it will never happen. They continue to be our tools, and we continue to have the last word. J.

That’s what he thinks. J’s computer