Category: Capitalism

John Smith, Jamestown, and the Beginnings of America


Each age tends to have only a meagre awareness of its own limitations. – Pope Francis

In October 1609, Capt. John Smith, hero of the Jamestown Colony in Virginia, left to go back to England, injured and disgraced, never to return.

It was probably for the best. Jamestown was turning out to be a mistake, contained in a disaster, wrapped up in a tragedy. The settlers wanted to abandon it more than once. It was a pathetic beginning for the colonization of the part of North America that would, 170 years later, declare its independence and become the United States.

Of the approximately 560 people who had so far been transplanted to live at Jamestown, more than 240 had died. The Sea Venture, one of the largest and most modern ships to set sail for Virginia, was shipwrecked with 150 on board. Even worse was yet to come during the winter of 1609-10 when 440 out of 500 settlers died in what has become known as the “starving time.” This is an 88 percent death rate!

I visited the Jamestown archaeological site this past summer. The work done there to date is well documented in both the main visitor center and the Archaearium, but I found myself leaving with many questions. What motivated the settlers to leave England for such a miserable ending? How did the backers and financiers in London justify sending so many to their deaths? Were these people just victims of circumstances or was there something else going on that was crippling their ability to thrive?

Photo by A. Taylor

Crosses marking the dead at Jamestown. Photo by A. Taylor

The answers to these questions have been the subject of debate for several decades at least. But it is undeniable that Jamestown was the beginning of America.

However, our American myth of origin is exactly that–a myth. This country did not begin with noble Pilgrims fleeing religious persecution in the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Rather, it began in a swampy, stinking scrap of land in Virginia.

According to author and historian James Horn, Jamestown–the first permanent English settlement on the continent–“was not intended as a model for some kind of idealized version of English society…or as a religious refuge for ‘God’s chosen people.'” Rather, “colonies would produce goods in demand in England that hitherto had to be imported from Europe and Asia, and English merchants would provide colonists with necessary credit, laborers, and supplies.”

By modern standards, though, this colony was an astonishing waste of resources, money, and human life. It is surprising to me that human life was given so little value. Not only were the Indians slaughtered mercilessly merely for being not Christians, but the English settlers were sent to their almost certain death simply because the lords wanted to beat the Spanish and claim North America for their king.

And to make money. Lots of money.

What it boils down to for me is this: The idea that we are a great nation with a manifest destiny founded on Christian principles is a fiction. Yes, we have persevered, but mostly out of dumb luck and not a divine plan.

Are these the so-called values that some Americans want to restore when they say our country needs to be restored to her former glory? If not, what is it exactly that they want to restore?

There is no immutable force guiding our direction. It is we, the People, who have a sacred obligation to set the nation’s course, to seek positive change, to honor our fellow citizens, and be committed to democracy and the Constitutional process.

I wonder what Capt. John Smith would think of America today. Would he be disappointed? Would he see a lot of material wealth without much unity? Maybe. Or perhaps he would he be happy to see that, despite the ill-conceived trainwreck of our first settlement, we somehow have risen above our beginnings and just might have a shot at another 400 years.



Big Name Wins Out

A few years ago, Sheryl Sandberg made a stir with her book Lean In.

Except that it wasn’t her book. By that I mean she didn’t write it. It was ghost-written for her, and yet it’s her name on the cover as the “author.”

This is nothing new. Ghost-writers have been used for many years.

The problem is that when anyone can slap a name on a book, what are the qualifications for calling someone a writer? And what is more significant, the fact that someone put pen to page (metaphorically) or the fact that someone is a Big Name?


Not Sheryl Sandberg.

Sandberg, of course, was already COO of Facebook when she “authored” Lean In.

Big Name wins out, it appears.

Two years ago, I decided to start using this blog as a platform for my thoughts and my writing. One of those thoughts led to writing a short bit about how the smart phone is the new cigarette. It got a handful of views and four ‘likes.’

So I was surprised to see today a piece on LinkedIn about—wait for it—how smart phones are the new cigarette. It has a nifty stock-photo graphic to illustrate it. And it was written (possibly) and posted (definitely) by Tim Bichara, Managing Partner at Nimble Mobile and Co-Founder and Commercial Director at Q App.

It has over 45,000 views and over 1,000 ‘likes.’ In one day.

Now, I’ve never heard of Tim Bichara, in the context of being a writer or any other context, frankly. He has written exactly two posts on LinkedIn. But he apparently is a Big Name.

Being a Big Name means people Read Your Stuff. Yes, his piece is longer than mine, but not more original. The only thing he has that I don’t is an audience, a ready-made following, perhaps from—I can only speculate here—his work at Nimble Mobile or Q App, whatever those are.

Writing, I realize, is seldom about the quality of the thought or the writing. Especially now, it mostly has to do with slick marketing and targeted demographics, just like any other commercial product.

So the lesson seems to be this: go out into the world, make a Big Name for yourself.

Then become a writer.

New Year’s Day 2035 — A Memoir

I can’t believe it’s New Year’s Day, 2035.

My retirement party last week was enjoyable, although I didn’t get as much champagne as I would have liked. But my two kids were there, looking all grown up with their significant others. And I received lots of well wishes.

Which I’m going to need, since I’m not really sure what my plans are now. I was going to move to Virginia Beach, but I had to sell the waterfront property that was to be our retirement home there. A few years ago–2032 I think it was–the city condemned the lot since the seawater now covers it more than half the year. I took the city’s “fair market value” offer, which was a fraction of what I paid.Happy New Year

But living by the water was really my wife’s idea. After she passed away in 2030, there wasn’t much point of holding onto it anymore.

Honestly, I won’t be missing my job. Though I stayed with the same company for nearly 40 years, it was never what I’d hoped it would be. It was my fault, really. I never caught up with the single most important economic trend of the century: mobile information.

All those devices and apps feel just as foreign to me now as when they first appeared decades ago. When I graduated from college way back in 1990, I was completely unprepared for what was to come. I naively believed that a liberal arts degree would provide enough opportunities to allow some choices, some flexibility in where I’d go, who I’d be. Instead, the degree was a ball and chain. For my entire career, I felt I was barely keeping my head above water. Sure, the pay and benefits were sufficient to raise a family on, but I never felt that I was very useful.

I was a legacy of a dying economy. The new century flooded in and my generation was drowned by the flow.

My kids have managed to make it, no thanks to anything I was able to teach them. Resilience is key, and I just didn’t have enough. I was effectively retired from service a long time ago, so this “retirement” thing is just a formality.

Still not sure what I’ll do. Travel sounds good as long as my health holds out. Maybe I can finally take that trip to the South of France–the part that’s still above sea level anyway. It’s somewhere that my wife and I had dreamed of going years ago.

Nasty Comment, That Will Cost 99 Cents

Ever since I moved to the Nation’s Capital area, I’ve read the Washington Post. Recently, though, I’ve come this close to giving it up altogether.

The Post has a long reputation for quality reporting. It’s coverage of national and international issues has included breaking stories about the Watergate scandal, among others. Moreover, it is essentially my local paper, being a good source for restaurant and movie reviews. Plus, my kids enjoy the Sunday comics.

I’ve continued to read the “paper” as it has transitioned to the internet. But lately, I’ve been reading it less and less. It’s not because the reporting is worse or that using it online is a problem.

It’s because of the comments.

Art by me.

Art by me.

According to the Pew Research Center, the “vast majority” of Americans today views news in some kind of digital format. And anyone who has read journalism or quasi-news online recently knows this problem of hateful, vitriolic, anonymous comments. A recent article (from the Post, ironically) succinctly describes how journalism organizations nationwide have struggled with what to do about it. “The wide-open, anonymous comment was the source of a huge amount of complaints from every one of our papers,” the article quotes a senior newspaper editor.

According to the article, newspapers are concerned that if they turn off the comments they will lose readers and therefore lose advertising revenues. But what if there were another system.

To me, the obvious reason hateful online comments have proliferated is because they are free.

Basic economics has demonstrated over and over again how a free resource will be abused, especially if the users are anonymous. Land will be destroyed, air will be polluted, water supplies will be strained, highways overcrowded. By supplying the ability to provide unlimited and anonymous comments, newspapers are essentially subsidizing hate speech.

So I think it’s time to kill the subsidies and make commenters pay a reasonable fee. Set a flat rate for a fixed amount of text, let’s say 99 cents for 300 characters. They can pay through their subscription account or some third party system, such as PayPal.

It will accomplish two goals at once: raise revenue for the journalists and cut down on the trolls. I think it could work, and I’d love to see someone test the theory.

Some might argue that such a system stifles free speech. But that argument fails for several reasons.

First, there already exist restrictions on speech. The famous example is that you don’t have a right to falsely shout “Fire!” in a crowded movie theater. More than that, all of our existing means of communication–telephone, the internet, the mail–come with a fee of some sort. Anything outside of face-to-face conversation, you have to pay.

Furthermore, this would by no means put a stop to online comments. As has been demonstrated repeatedly by patrons in karaoke bars and the TV shows like American Idol, there is a nearly unlimited willingness of people to spend time and money to make fools of themselves in public.

Finally, as the Supreme Court recently reminded us, money does not prevent free speech. Rather, money is speech.

[Updated 5/13/2014 with reference to the Pew Research Center.]

Embrace Your Inner Socialist


[Note: Updated Nov. 11, 2013, in #2 “The military.”]

I was stuck behind a driver the other day who had a bumper sticker that proclaimed “Stop Socialism!” The words were in a big, red octagon, like a stop sign. I couldn’t read anything else on the sticker–my eyes aren’t what they used to be–but the message was very clear. Socialism, this guy feels, is something that has no place in America.

I chuckled to myself as I sat at the light. I thought that this guy, loudly declaring his disgust for socialism, has probably benefited more than he realizes from the few arguably socialist programs we have in this country.

According to The Oxford Companion to Politics of the World, socialism can be defined as “the insistence that full membership in a political community entails social citizenship: security and opportunity for all.” Looking at it this way, in the United States it doesn’t get more socialist than the following:

  1. Public education: Public schools are a mandatory program, supplied by the government, using tax dollars. According to the Department of Education, of the total number of children enrolled in primary and secondary schools, approximately 90 percent are educated in public schools. I went to public school, and you probably did too. If we were to “stop socialism,” the alternative would be private education, which has been called out by some for its lack of committment to the education of disadvantaged children. And just like anything else in a free market, the education would go to only those who could pay for it, and the best teachers would work at the schools that paid the most. It stands to reason that a significant proportion of the country would be unable to afford to go to a decent school, or any school at all.
  2. The military: Professional soldiers, sailors, and airmen are fed by the government, housed by the government, clothed by the government, given equipment by the government, educated and trained by the government, and given free health care for life by the government. “Service members have little autonomy or choice,” say two veterans in a recent Washington Post article. Sounds a bit like Cuba and China. But while our military does place some restrictions on the individual, it also provides opportunity. Being in the military allows people of modest means and little hope for a secure future to find a vocation, gain the camaraderie of peers, and earn the respect that comes from serving one’s country. All provided by the government. If we were to “stop socialism,” we would essentially revert back to a time when officers were exclusively of the landed gentry, and the enlisted were no better than indentured servants or prison labor.
  3. Medicare: Contrary to what the tea partiers would have us believe, Medicare enjoys widespread popularity throughout the country. In fact, according to The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, as of 2011 (the latest data), 48.8 million people are enrolled in Medicare, with a healthy amount of participation in every single state in the union. That’s approximately 15 percent of the population of the United States. More importantly, nearly 100 percent of the population aged 65 and older have health care coverage supplied by the government. If we were to “stop socialism,” it is likely that the vast majority of the elderly and disabled would suffer from preventable and curable diseases due to an almost complete loss of access to health care.

If we gave all three–education, the military, and our health care–back to private owners and the marketplace, this country would become a feudal society with liberty and justice for only those who can afford it. It would be unrecognizable. If that’s what the majority wants for our nation, fine, so be it. But let it be an informed decision.

My guess is that people like the dude with the bumper sticker have never paused to think about how much government support they actually receive, even as they demonize the government as being the problem. The term “socialism” has become a buzzword among certain circles that translates to “government violating my rights.” Like most buzzwords, it adds to the level of noise without signifying anything.  Next time someone is ranting about socialism, I think I’ll stop listening.