The Problem with Capitalism

stock-photo-68899959-cracking-dollar-symbolIn a previous post, I offered a simple and flexible definition of capitalism:

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 definition of capitalism ties together all of the various forms of capitalism we’ve seen in the last five centuries — such as mercantile capitalism, industrial capitalism, and financial capitalism — and connects it to the European feudalism from which it developed. But this definition does something else, as well: it clarifies the central flaw in capitalism.

Ownership entitles me to profit from the work of others; I can then use that profit to purchase more ownership, which entitles me to even more profit.

This is what engineers call a positive-feedback loop, or an amplifier. Its natural function is to amplify wealth.

Capitalists also believe in proportional amplification: that their returns on investment should be proportional to their investment. If they buy two houses and rent them out, they should see twice the profit they would see if they buy one house and rent it out. This seems only fair.

Proportional gain and exponential growth are, mathematically, the same thing. So capitalists believe in the exponential amplification of wealth.

This is more than just an arbitrary expectation: it is actually the moral center of capitalism. The argument goes something like this.

“Yes,” the capitalists say, “we are getting wealthy, extremely wealthy. And well we should: for every $166 that we gain in wealth, the poorest people in the world, the non-producers, the parasites, the bums and the wasters, get one dollar in an improved standard of living. We’re doing all the work, taking all the risks, and the poor are getting this dollar for free. For absolutely nothing. So just shut up and show a little gratitude for the better, wealthier life we are bringing to the whole world.”

This is how capitalists view themselves and what they are doing. They are improving the world, and they should not be asked to “give back” anything, because everyone is already getting the benefits that their efforts bring. Railroads. Automobiles. Computers. Every dollar they invest into exponential economic growth benefits everyone, and that benefit — like their fortunes — also grows exponentially.

If they “give back” through taxes, that money does not go into the exponential growth machine. It’s wasted on handouts. That slows down the exponential growth of the $166 to which they are entitled, of course, but it also slows the exponential growth of the $1 that goes to the rest of the world.

Getting themselves rich, according to the capitalists, is the fast track to eliminating all poverty through economic progress. For them to pay taxes is, in their view, an  immoral use of money that would be better spent getting them rich and promoting economic progress for the poor.

This is the theory of “trickle-down.” The rich get richer. The poor get dragged up with them, whether they participate, whether they even want to be dragged up. A rising tide lifts all boats.

Now, for capitalists to experience sustained exponential growth of their wealth in this vision of progress, the economy as a whole must also grow exponentially.  When economists pronounce that the United States showed a “healthy growth” of 2% last year, with the expectation that it will grow at least 2% next year, and again the next, they are affirming the exponential growth of the US economy.

Even if we limit the number of capitalists in the world — let’s say that only the richest 500 people in the world are allowed to practice capitalism — the global economy must grow exponentially in order for economic progress to proceed. Even if we cap the exponential growth of these 500 fortunes at some arbitrary amount — say, one percent — the global economy must grow exponentially.

This is the mathematically unavoidable consequence of exponential growth.

Suppose, however, that the economy stops growing exponentially — it might still be growing, simply not exponentially. In that case, the exponentially growing gains that capitalists continue to draw from their investments would be taken out of an economy that did not keep up with what they are taking out. That wealth has to come from somewhere — which means, ultimately, that the capitalists’ growing wealth comes at the expense of other people’s wealth.

This is generally called theft.

With global exponential economic growth, capitalism arguably provides the greatest economic good for everyone. Without global exponential economic growth, capitalism becomes a form of theft.

The core problem with capitalism is that sustained exponential growth is not, and cannot be, sustained in nature.

This is self-evident. An exponentially growing economy is a doubling economy. With a “healthy” annual growth of 3%, the economy doubles every 24 years. That means we must eat twice as much beef, use twice as much gasoline, buy twice as many cars, build twice as many houses, stay in twice as many hotel rooms, watch twice as many movies. All economic activity must double: from Ambulances to Zambonis. Any economic activity that falls behind this brutal doubling pace requires that other activities more than double, or that new economic activities be spawned, to take up the slack.

Then, in another 24 years, the economy must double again.

A more modest 2% annual growth takes 36 years to double. It’s exactly the same problem, on a slightly extended timetable.

We live on a finite planet. It doesn’t take long for the exponential growth of resource exploitation to hit the bounds of the earth.

When people argue that this just isn’t true, their arguments generally fall into three categories: technology, the information economy, and the idea of “getting off this rock,” or migration to other planets.

Before I touch on these, I’d like to deal with the first and most specifically human of all approaches to this problem: denial and intellectual dishonesty.

I’m going to tag the professional economists, here: they have covered up the impossibility of sustained exponential economic growth with bad accounting, and a vague concept called “wealth creation.”

Let me illustrate with an example. Building a paper mill creates paper, but it doesn’t create wealth: it transforms natural wealth (trees, water, chemicals) into human wealth (paper). Humans value paper over trees, just as magpies value shiny objects over dull objects, so people consider a paper mill to be something that creates wealth. However, natural wealth exists in its own natural economy — we call it an ecosystem — of which humans are also a part, and upon which humans depend for air, water, food, and other more subtle necessities of life. In this natural economy, paper is considerably less valuable than trees, and paper mill effluent is downright destructive. So if we want to say that a paper mill creates (human) wealth, we need to acknowledge that it does so by destroying (natural) wealth.

The destruction of natural wealth is completely ignored by economists as an “intangible.”

This is irresponsibly bad accounting — robbing from Peter to pay Paul, but never keeping track of what was stolen from Peter, or even acknowledging Peter’s existence — covered up by the specious idea that wealth is being created out of nothing, which is not only untrue, but obscures the obvious question of what happens when Peter goes broke.

Now, trees grow back, and in the long run, every ream of paper ends up in a landfill which, in a few thousand years, will become a new forest. So in the global picture, we could state the following general principle:

Wealth is never created or destroyed. It is only moved and transformed.

The issue is in the transformation, because some transformations are — on any practical human time scale — irreversible. Burning petrofuel is one of these irreversible transformations. Fishing a species to extinction is another. It’s quite possible to exhaust the carrying capacity of an ecosystem and disrupt it fatally — to destroy its natural wealth completely, at least on any time-scale of interest to the human species. It’s possible to kill a forest. It’s possible to kill an entire planet. One way to guarantee that will happen is to use bad accounting to write the natural economy completely out of the economic equation, and then consider exponential growth of the one-sided human economy a “moral imperative.”

This is exactly what capitalism does.

There’s nothing new or even uniquely human about this, of course. Most organisms exploit their ecological niche to whatever extent they can, and they often render the ecosystem they rely upon uninhabitable. The phytoplankton species that gobbled up most of the atmospheric carbon dioxide millions of years ago and polluted the air with its waste product, oxygen, killed off its entire microscopic civilization, leaving only a fractional, gasping remnant of its former glory. That opened the door, of course, to oxygen-breathing life, such as our own human lives.

Countless human societies have done the same thing, on a smaller scale, and those societies were forced to either migrate elsewhere, or starve to death. We see plenty of archaeological evidence of both. We don’t get a free pass just because we have delusions of being God’s Little Helpers.

Indeed, a warning against ecocide is one reading of the story of being driven out of the Garden of Eden in the Christian Bible.

There is an important shift of awareness that happens as soon as we recognize the existence of a natural economy, and the fact that our human wealth creation depends upon natural wealth destruction. This shift of awareness raises the question of how capitalism even took root, much less lasted as long as it has.

Surely the fact that capitalism has been so successful is clear evidence that everything I’ve said so far is wrong?

The question is answered by looking at when capitalism took off: the year 1500 is the turning point, in round century numbers. What happened in 1500? Simply this: the European discovery, conquest, colonization, and exploitation of what they called “the New World,” the North and South American continents: an almost unimaginable repository of easily-accessed natural wealth. Timber. Silver. Gold. Rubber. Maize. Fertilizer (guano). Space, vast empty space for an expanding population, space left in the wake of European diseases that wiped out as much as 95% of the indigenous populations of the Americas, leaving two essentially empty continents to exploit.

The problem now, of course, is that the New World has become the Old Americas. The silver mines at Potosí are played out. The Colorado, California, and Yukon gold rushes are over. The US steel belt has become the rust belt. The vast stands of old-growth timber are only a shadow of what they were. The rich fishing-grounds have become oceanic deserts. US oil fields are dry. The various colonies the Europeans spawned around the world during their colonial phase to “develop” (exploit) resources have all flattened in growth, and can no longer keep up with the demand for exponential growth.

The capitalist fuel tank is pushing Empty, and there is nowhere on Earth left to conquer.

Some people say that this is defeatist nonsense. They say that technology will save us. Some think that technology can actually keep up with exponential demands: those people simply don’t understand what the word “exponential” means. Those who do understand the word, however, will still argue that the eventual end of capitalist growth is years, generations, or even centuries down the road due to potential advances in technology.

So let’s talk a bit about technology.

People have been developing technology to fight resource shortages since long before we were homo sapiens. Technology is hardly a new concept. Even crows and ants develop technologies to gather resources necessary to their survival.

However, there’s a general thing about technology that people seldom appreciate: our new technologies typically extract more wealth from the natural economy than the technologies they replace, just to sustain the same level of resource exploitation.

Now, it is possible to develop win-win technologies, where both human and natural wealth are increased. But none of these win-win technologies can give us the exponential growth we demand under capitalism: their growth curve is generally an asymptotically-slowing growth toward a maximum steady-state limit, which could be called the “carrying capacity” of the technology. Permaculture, for instance, improves the soil as we farm it. But it can only improve the soil to a certain maximum carrying capacity, after which you can’t enrich the soil any further, and you can’t increase your crop yield without destroying the balance and extracting natural wealth from the soil.

So capitalism can’t really use win-win technologies to support its exponential models, and doesn’t normally develop them. It turns, instead, to extractive technologies that can be (temporarily) scaled up on an exponential curve at an ever-increasing cost to the natural economy, to fool us into believing that our human economy is once again growing at a “healthy” exponential rate. Then extraction hits its peak, and we need a new and more damaging extractive technology to extend or replace the old.

Up until recently, we’ve been able to do this and quietly collude with the economists in ignoring the natural economy, simply because the natural economy was so vast compared to the size of the human economy. It was, after all, only a few decades ago that we said, “The solution to pollution is dilution.” That was on the tip of every civil engineer’s tongue. It’s what they were taught in college.

No one teaches that any more, because every new technology is beginning to show almost immediate, and global, feedback. We invent DDT, and entire food chains are poisoned and begin to die out within decades. We invent CFCs, and the Earth’s protective ozone layer starts to break up. We improve corn yields, and then honeybees drop dead in large enough quantity to cause concern about the future of agriculture itself. We build cars, and polar ice melts. We make the desert bloom, at the cost of draining ten-thousand-year-old aquifers.

When our technological fixes start to immediately reflect back off the limits of the planet, we’re very close to the end of all technological fixes — and therefore, the end of growth capitalism that depends on technology to keep feeding it with an exponentially increasing supply of resources.

Now, it isn’t impossible that a technological “silver bullet” is just waiting to be developed, that will kick the can down the road another few centuries or even further, such as the so-called “cold fusion” process I’ve written about here and here. But this really underlines my point: for capitalism to continue operating, it pretty much needs a technological miracle. Sustained exponential growth being what it is, even a miracle is only a temporary (and surprisingly short-term) fix.

Technology isn’t going to solve this problem. It will only delay it.

Then we have this concept of the Information Economy, an economic model based on information rather than goods, dealing in products which don’t require raw materials to produce. It’s not quite true that they need no raw materials, but that’s a quibble; the real problem with the Information Economy is Bishop Berkeley’s question from philosophy: if a novel is written in a sea of novels, but no one has time to read it, does it really exist? Certainly it doesn’t turn a profit if no one buys it.

Again, this is a matter of bad accounting. The critical resource in the information age is people, more specifically, people’s attention, which is a finite resource. As each of us becomes more desperately involved in using our attention to produce an exponentially growing corpus of “content,” we certainly don’t have time left to read anyone else’s content, much less pay for it.

Unless, of course, human population continues to expand exponentially. But people are not information: they require space, food, water, and air. Population will not continue to expand exponentially.

The Information Economy isn’t going to solve this problem.

Finally, there’s the idea that if we can just “get off this rock,” our problems will be solved. We can find another New World somewhere out there in the darkness of the Final Frontier.

I’ve explored the mathematical problem here, and the physical problem here. Even if we solved the physical problem — and that isn’t impossible, though it requires physics no one has yet proposed, much less demonstrated — the mathematical problem is still intractable. No matter how fast we expand through space, the need for exponential economic growth backs us into exactly the same corner a handful of centuries down the road.

Space travel isn’t going to solve this problem.

Capitalism is built on a completely false premise: that wealth can be created out of nothing, and can sustain exponential growth. In reality, capitalism creates human wealth by destroying natural wealth, which we need as humans to survive. Exponential growth of the human economy means exponentially increasing destruction of the natural economy, and we’ve already reached a scale where our depredations have global consequences.

Capitalism is driving the human race toward extinction.

In a subsequent post, I’ll write about some of the changes we’re already seeing in capitalism as it tries to adapt to this reality.


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 Public 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?


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.

The Bubble People

Financial Times did one of their paid-advertising posts on my Facebook feed the other day, with this article: America’s Middle-class Meltdown.

I wish I could preserve for posterity the article, and especially the conversation that follows, because when future historians scratch their heads and wonder how a national superpower like the United States suddenly flipped over and sank to the bottom of an ocean of red ink with no warning and no corrective actions taken, they could read this article, and all would become clear.

Here’s the graphic the article was built around:


The graph doesn’t make much sense, and the longer you stare at it, the less sense it makes.

The article is a long one that attempts to tease meaning out of this chart. But the chart has a glaring flaw. Does anyone else see it?

It’s right up at the top: “in 2014 dollars.”

Of course, in 1971, people weren’t earning or spending 2014 dollars, they were using 1971 dollars, which — due to inflation eroding the value of the dollar over the intervening four decades — were worth a lot more in terms of what you could buy. When people publish these “adjusted for inflation” numbers, they use the official “inflation rate” figures published by the Department of Labor Statistics to determine how much value the dollar lost over the course of four decades, and cite an income people would have been making in 1971, had they been using the less-valuable 2014 dollars.

This calculation is critically dependent on the inflation rates used. Let me demonstrate just how critical this is.

Inflation, like compound interest, is exponential in nature. You take your original value, multiply by one plus the interest or inflation rate, and repeat forty times to get from 1971 to 2011 (forty years). It looks like this:

(1 + \frac{rate_{nom}}{100})^{40} = p_{nom}^{40}

The “nom” subscript stands for “nominal,” meaning “named” or “official.” So if you have a nominal 3% inflation rate, it looks like:

(1 + \frac{3}{100})^{40} = 1.03^{40} = 3.26\%

That means overall prices will more than triple over the course of forty years. We all know how this works: we’ve been living with it our entire lives.

Now, let’s say that this official inflation number is too low by a tenth of a percent: that the actual inflation rate is 3.1%, while the official value is 3.0%. Since inflation figures are generally only cited to one decimal place, a consistent rounding error could make the number wrong by this amount.

It’s convenient in what follows to consider the fractional error:

f = \frac{p_{act}}{p_{nom}}

If we look at the actual inflation, we get:

(p_{act})^{40} = (\frac{p_{act}}{p_{nom}} \cdot p_{nom})^{40} = (f \cdot p_{nom})^{40} = f^{40} \cdot p_{nom}^{40}

In our example,

f^{40} = (\frac{1.031}{1.030})^{40} = (1.00097)^{40} = 1.0396 = (1 + \frac{3.96}{100}) = 3.96\%

It’s a little shocking, when you turn this into wages. If the economists consistently rounded down when reporting the general inflation rate, your inflation-adjusted salary in 2011 should be four percent higher than they say it should be, based on your 1971 salary. That’s more than most of us have seen in a cost-of-living adjustment in years.

Just for fun, let’s see what would happen if the economists were off by a full percentage point.

f^{40} = (\frac{1.04}{1.03})^{40} = (1.00971)^{40} = 1.472 = (1 + \frac{47.2}{100}) = 47.2\%

An error of a single percentage point on a three percent nominal inflation rate means that their comparison would be off by 47%. It means that a 1971 salary was worth half-again as much as the official inflation-adjusted numbers indicate. Which means that the peak of the blue curve above, sitting at around $50k, would need to be stretched to the right to $75k.

And that, my friends, tells an entirely different story about the economy.

So just how accurate are these nominal inflation values?

One thing we always had to do in my physics studies years ago was to come at a problem from multiple directions, calculate results with different simplifying assumptions, and see if the numbers all kind of fell in the same ballpark. If something was way out of whack, we’d have to go back and try to figure out the mistake. I still do this kind of thing every few months with software development issues, especially when making performance measurements.

So I started with annual nominal inflation rates published at the US Inflation Calculator. These are Consumer Price Index values from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, and are presumably the same numbers Financial Times used. I made a little spreadsheet, plugged in the numbers, and computed cumulative inflation rates from 1960 to 2015, then checked it against their inflation calculator on the website, and my spreadsheet matched their calculator. So I got that much right.

I then took the period from 1960 to 2006 (I’ll tell you why in a moment), and computed an “averaged” inflation rate over those 46 years: meaning, I computed the inflation rate that, if it were exactly the same, year after year, would result in the same endpoint of 6.814, which is the overall inflation in prices between 1960 and 2006, according to the government economists. For the geeks out there, this is:

p_{avg} = e^{\frac{ln 6.814}{46}} = 1.0426 = (1 + \frac{4.26}{100}) = 4.26\%

So the government says that from 1960 to 2006, there was an “average” inflation rate of 4.26%, resulting in a nearly seven-fold increase in prices.

Now the problem is that in 2006, I sold my father’s house to pay for his nursing care, after restoring the original wood floors and generally bringing it back to its original 1960 condition, and it struck me that the house sold for almost exactly ten times what he’d paid for it (new) in 1960. This intrigued me, so I went back and did a little research, and found that prices across the board — cars, food, dinner out, children’s clothing — were all about ten times higher in 2006, compared to 1960. Even gasoline was about ten times higher: $0.35/gallon compared to the (wildly-fluctuating) $3.50/gallon in the mid-2000’s.

There’s more than a bit of a difference between a seven-fold increase, and a ten-fold increase. In a physics or engineering problem, this is a clear sign of a severe mistake in the calculations, somewhere. (Except in astrophysics, of course. Sorry, it’s an inside joke.)

If I compute an average inflation rate for the observed ten-fold increase, I get:

p_{avg} = e^{\frac{ln 10}{46}} = 1.0513 = (1 + \frac{5.13}{100}) = 5.13\%

This seems to indicate that the economists working for the Bureau of Labor Statistics were off by, on average, about a full percentage point for the forty-six years from 1960 to 2006. Over this period, their error fraction would be:

f^{40} = (\frac{1.0513}{1.0426})^{46} = 1.465 = (1 + \frac{46.5.4}{100}) = 46.5\%

So that means if this Financial Times chart had “inflation-adjusted” a 1960 salary into 2006 dollars, the adjustment would make the 1960 salaries too low. You’d have to boost them by almost half again to correctly compare with 2006 salaries.

I haven’t done the research on 1971 prices compared to 2015 prices, but I see no reason to think economists have gotten any better at their jobs in the last nine years. So I went ahead and drew this (I don’t have FT’s actual numbers, so I had to eyeball it from their chart — it should be pretty close):

The yellow line just follows the red bars, from the FT article.

The blue line is from the FT article.

The orange line is what happens when you correct the blue line for presumably underreported inflation rates. [For you wonks, I simply multiplied the x-axis values of the blue curve by the error factor of 1.465, and divided the y-axis values by 1.465 to normalize the area under the curve.]

I also found their cutoff at $200k on current data (red bars and yellow line) extremely peculiar. According to most sources I’ve seen (e.g. CNNMoney), the top 2% of income starts at around $300k. But their 2015 data (the red bars) stops at $200k and only totals to about 92.5% of the population, leaving that last 7.5% or so unaccounted for — they lump it all into the $200k+ category — which explains the huge spike at the end of the chart.

This is especially peculiar because the blue line — their inflation-adjusted 1971 data — covers 99% of the population, leaving a 1% spike at the end. I have no idea why they cut off current incomes at $200k, leaving 7.5% of the population unaccounted for, instead of running it out to $300k, which would have covered 98% of the population.

So I went ahead and fudged in 5.5%, spread out in a tail between $200k and $300k, which then leaves 2% making above $300k. There could be a 5.5% spike right at $242k for some bizarre reason, but I doubt it.

As I said, this now tells a very different story.

Most of this article was econobabble that tries to explain away something that pops right out at you: the blue line says that (apart from about 1% of the population that has fallen into serious poverty) everyone is doing better in 2014 than they were doing in 1971. Yes, there are a lot fewer people making between $10k and $75k, but this is because there are so many more people making more than $85k.


The orange curve — if correct — shows that no one, on the whole, has benefitted in the 2014 economy, except maybe the folks up in the top percent or two. This looks a lot more like what most of us have experienced: hiring freezes, capital budget trimming, layoffs of skilled workers, people picking up what low-paid work they can just to keep body and soul together, combined with relentless rise in the price of consumer goods, even as the official “inflation rate” remains negligible.

The blue curve does not match reality. The orange curve does.

All I had to do to correct this was to look at actual price increases over the period from 1960 to 2006, determine that the Bureau of Labor Statistics apparently underreports inflation by about one percent on a consistent basis, and then apply that one percent correction to the article data.

This is more than just a little disturbing. If the Bureau of Labor Statistics is systematically low-balling the inflation figures, it has profound repercussions throughout every measure of the US economy. Among other things, it means that the US economy isn’t growing as fast as reported, and may not be growing at all.

If you look into the methodology the Bureau of Labor Statistics uses, and read some of the critiques, there is clearly game-playing going on. Which makes sense: governments don’t like to see high inflation numbers, and it is pretty easy for them to lean on people to figure out ways to misreport the numbers, year after year.

Let me give just one amusing example. Hedonics. It works like this (and I choose exaggerated examples, for effect, but I believe this is essentially accurate):

Let’s say you want to compute inflation between 1927 and 2015, based on car prices. So you look up the cost of a new Ford Model T in 1927 ($360), and the cost of a popular low-end car in 2014, say a Ford Fiesta ($14,500).

“But wait!” cries the professor of Hedonics. “That’s not a fair comparison. The Fiesta is a much better car. It has windshield wipers! And a radio! And electric locks! And the paint lasts longer!”

So they start discounting the “improvements” to the Fiesta, using estimates of the desirability of those features in an open market (how much you’d pay for those windshield wipers if they weren’t included), and end up with an imaginary car that is equivalent to a Model T, and would sell for $5000. So the Hedonics-adjusted inflation is based on the change from $360 to $5000, not $360 to $14,500. That additional $9500 is paid for actual value, and doesn’t count as inflation.

The obvious fallacy, here, is that you cannot buy the Model T equivalent car for $5000, or for any price, because it doesn’t exist. If you want a new, low-end car, you have to pay $14,500, and you get the “improvements” whether you want them or not.

Another Hedonics trick is to make substitutions of “equivalent value.” If you can’t afford beef because the price of beef is going through the roof, you can just switch to mayonnaise and Soylent Green, which is (according to someone) nutritionally equivalent, and costs exactly what beef used to cost. So, you see, there is really no inflation at all.

The key is to understand that all of these various “fine tuning” methods somehow always lower the consumer price index. They never raise it. Especially compared to the commonsense meaning of inflation, which has to do with how far your paycheck will stretch in buying the necessities that are actually available for purchase.

Over time, this game-playing means that both government and private enterprises are flying blind, and are merely telling themselves comforting bedtime stories about the economy, believing their own propaganda.

Which brings me back to the Financial Times article. I don’t read Financial Times, and after this exposure, never will: it appears to be the Fox News of the financial industry.

But the comments on this article were priceless. I have decided to call the Financial Times readers The Bubble People: they live in little bubbles of illusion that float free of the Earth and all its troubles and cares, and the messy reality of it all. I imagine they have personal assistants who actually pay the bills.

For instance, The Bubble People here complain quite a bit about how “ungrateful” Liberals are, since the graph (the original FT chart) clearly shows that things are much better for the common people: see how many fewer are making less than $50k, and how many more are making over $100k/year, compared to what people were making in 1971? People should be grateful they aren’t living in that icky lower-income bulge any more, and have been pushed into making more money. But no, they aren’t grateful, they just complain — that’s just what those Ungrateful Liberals do.

The Bubble People also gush about how cars and computers (and yachts?) are ever-so-much better these days, and how they think Hedonics makes perfect sense. It’s a better car, dammit, of course it should cost more. Has nothing to do with inflation. Nothing at all.

The real irony, however, is that these are the people who don’t trust the government. You see them telling each other that corporations produce all the good things in life, and the government just gets in their way and screws things up. Yet it never seems to occur to even one of them to question the inflation figures that come directly from the government they so completely distrust. Maybe they’re just ignorant: perhaps they don’t realize that “inflation-adjusted wages” are adjusted based on inflation rates that are generated and published by the government.

More likely, of course, is that they think with their appetites, rather than their minds. When a chart tells them something they want to believe (like things are getting better for those “common people” who make less than $200k, or Liberals are all stupid whiners), then the chart must reflect reality.

I don’t know if the Bureau of Labor Statistics is underreporting inflation rates. Maybe Mr. Alan Smith of Financial Times made some other error in posting that blue curve, and simply needs a dope slap. My little mathematical exercise above is nothing more than suggestive. But were I in charge of the Bureau of Labor Statistics, I would be asking some deadly serious questions, with a number of economists’ jobs on the line.

Because this isn’t just an academic matter. If the CPI is chronically understated by one percent, then no one — not one, single working economist or financial expert in the country — has any idea what the economy is actually doing. If the orange curve above is anything like correct, it tells a story of economic pain on a vast scale. Pain becomes anger, and widespread anger is dangerous. People who become convinced that a game is rigged — whether rightly or wrongly — tend to kick the board over and start throwing rocks. Ask the ghost of Marie Antoinette: I used to think the “let them eat cake” story was apocryphal, but after reading the comments of The Bubble People in the Financial Times, I’m no longer sure.

N.B. Some minor corrections have been made to the calculations since the original version.

Who Can Say?

UnknownOne of the things that happens when you move is that you end up going through your junk: the cruft of decades of accumulating things you should probably have thrown away, but for some reason, didn’t.

Christmas cards, for instance.

I had a drawer full of old Christmas cards. Many of them were Hallmark cards with nothing more than “– Bob & Betty” by way of personalization, and while Bob and Betty may have been my dearest friends in the world twenty years ago, keeping this card they signed hurriedly in a bustle of Christmas chores doesn’t really do anything but take up space.

On the other hand, a lot of the Christmas cards had letters in them. Mostly the newsy kind, sent out to hundreds of people; though some of my friends turned this into an art form, complete with 36-point tabloid headlines and amusing though highly-improbable stories about the past year.

Mixed into this collection were real letters, personal letters, some of them hand-written. Post cards, sent from exotic locations around the world. Bits of poetry and art.

One of the letters contained a bona fide fable, which I will relate here.

It seems there was an old farmer in the old country many generations ago. Like most of his neighbors, he was poor and scratched out a living from the dirt with the help of his son and his one possession of value, a good, strong mare.

One night, the son left the paddock gate open, and the horse escaped. Next morning, the farmer’s neighbors heard the news, and they all shook their heads and said, “What terrible luck!”

The farmer shrugged. “Bad luck, good luck, who can say?”

That night, the mare returned in the company of three wild horses who followed her back to her barn. The farmer heard them, got out of bed, and closed the gate. He now had four horses!

The farmer’s neighbors heard of this, and they all said, “My, what good luck you have had today!”

The farmer shrugged. “Good luck, bad luck, who can say?”

That very day, the farmer’s son, trying to handle the wild horses, was kicked and trampled, and both his legs were broken.

The neighbors all visited the farmer, and shook their heads, and said, “You have had the worst luck!”

The farmer shrugged. “Bad luck, good luck, who can say?”

A week later, an army marched through the village and conscripted every young man over the age of twelve to fight in a hopeless and bloody war many leagues distant — every young man, that is, except the farmer’s son, who could not march on his mending legs.

Libtards and Other Insults

There’s a meme running around the Internet right now mocking “political correctness,” comparing twenty-year-olds who fought in WWII to the twenty-year-olds on college campuses who want safe spaces from nasty old words.

A friend reposted an Internet bumpersticker to this effect that linked to a site where self-described conservatives gather to trash-talk the educated elites and other “libtards.” It’s the first time I’ve actually been to one of those places, and the comments — which contained some of the vilest language expressing the most sewer-worthy mental processes I’ve ever read — made me think. I wanted to respond to one of them, in particular, with something like the following:

Yes, things have certainly gone downhill a long way since 1945. In those days, conservatives were polite, well-spoken, and if they didn’t go to college, they went out and got jobs and did something productive with their lives, rather than hanging around in a public place showing off their dirty mouths. Had they made such a public nuisance of themselves, a police officer would have picked up the ringleader and taken him home to his father, who would have listened politely to the officer, then given his son an indelible lesson in civic pride. Had that failed to have the intended effect, the boy would have found himself in military school, in the hopes that a good master-sergeant could make a man and citizen out of him. Conservatism was, if nothing else, always polite. That is clearly no longer the nature of conservatism.

Or at least, the self-described “conservatism” that lives in these Internet ratholes, or on “conservative talk radio,” or in political campaigns like Donald Trump’s or Carly Fiorina’s, where “political correctness” is a code-word for “civility,” and is entirely absent.

You know, at least slavery was a real issue. I mean, if you’re going to tear apart civil society, set brother against brother in mortal combat, slavery is something worth fighting over. Insofar as any war is worth fighting.

But it seems we are now coming to a national crisis over the right to be foul-mouthed boors. The right to prance around in convenience stores decked out like Rambo-without-a-cause. The right to believe, and legislate upon, the idea that prayer to God to bring down gas prices is a sound national energy policy.

That is not conservatism. That is insanity.

Summer Symphony Third Movement

imagesThe third movement is up.

Unfortunately, you’ve all heard it before, as the Sextet, renamed Sunset Afternoons. Fortunately, you’ve not heard it quite like this.

I’ve been thinking of calling it a “Minuet and two-thirds,” since it’s written in a five beat (a Minuet is in three, so a minuet and two-thirds would be in five). I’ve also wondered about calling it a “Minuet and forty seconds,” which makes it an absolutely horrible (and obscure) pun.