There have been some calls to regulate services like FaceBook, Twitter, et al so they are not able to unilaterally shut down users over things like political opinions.
Since I lean heavily libertarian I am generally opposed to any increase in government regulation of anything. Fortunately, it would seem that all the regulation needed is already in place.
Here’s the approach I would recommend.
“Common Carriers,” like your phone service (landline or wireless) or most Internet Providers have very broad protections against liability for content carried on their service. If someone says something actionable on the phone, the phone service is shielded from liability for that since they have no control over what someone says on the phone. There are limits on this, but as a general rule, that’s the way common carrier protections work. But it only works because the common carrier exercises no control over content on that carrier or it exercises only limited control (I have seen some common carriers pull the plug on habitual violations of copyright–downloading pirate videos and the like).
Once a platform starts exercising control over content, however, they’re no longer a common carrier. If they pull some material over its content it can be argued that content that remains is because they choose to have it remain. And, thus, they are legally liable for that content.
So, if companies like FaceBook, Twitter, Apple, Spotify, etc. want to remove material based on the content, then they should be legally liable, then, for all the remaining content since they are picking and choosing. Let them, then, either make sure they chase down every actionable statement anybody makes on their platforms or let them and their deep pockets be party to the lawsuits over said actionable content. Either of those things will tend to drive up their costs of operation.
This requires people willing to pursue lawsuits and lawyers willing to take those cases but given the deep pockets of at least some of those companies, they might well be attractive to lawyers willing to work on contingency.
Make pursuing biased content expensive by holding them accountable for what they do keep and the market can take care of the rest.
Running late on other things, so here’s another snippet from a Work in Progress:
The alarm on my phone woke me. I stretched. Almost no pain in my ribs. While the bone might not be back up to full strength, it was at least knit well enough that it didn’t hurt. That was strange. I healed fast, I knew that, but not that fast.
I glanced at my phone confirming the time. It would be just after sunset in Nashville. I also saw the message indicator. I picked up the phone and dialed.
“Please enter your password.”
I punched in the numbers.
“You have one new message.”
“Yeah, come on,” I said while waiting for the interminable greeting to finish.
Finally, Ware’s voice came on the line. “Ms. Herzeg. I’m afraid I haven’t found anything about the rental car. It is not where you say you left it and it hasn’t shown up in any of the impound lots. If I had to guess, it’s been stolen and stripped by now.”
“Damn,” I said. There went my luggage.
Ware was continuing. “I’d like to meet with you this evening, see if there’s any way we can avoid…” His voice trailed off. Even the hardened, experience police detective did not want to say “another massacre.” I understood that. I didn’t even want to think it.
“Call me after seven. I’ll be able to pick up then.”
The message ended and I pressed the button to delete it before looking at the clock again. Not quite seven. I dialed another number.
“This is Herzeg. I need the boss.”
“One moment, Ms. Herzeg.”
I waited. A moment later I heard Matei’s voice. “Dani.”
He did not say any more.
“They redid the cast on my right arm at the hospital today. I’m at least partially mobile on crutches. Still need the wheelchair for any extended movements but at least I can push myself now.”
“Good. You need to find these vampires.”
“Meeting with my police contact tonight,” I said. “I’ll see what I can find out. Oh, and Boss? He knows.”
“You told him?”
“He worked it out for himself mostly,” I said. “These guys aren’t exactly being discrete.”
“No, they are not,” Matei said, “and that concerns me. We are seeing much the same in the other cases.”
“So I’m…still on my own.”
“You are. Very well, this police officer knows. Tell him what you need to. If he talks, his superiors won’t believe him. And if he becomes a problem, I will deal with it.”
Matei gave a very good imitation of a sigh. He was getting better at imitating humans. “Killing police officers draws too much attention. I will simply alter his memories.”
I shivered. For a moment, I wondered if that would not be worse, to be mind-raped that way. Then I thought of Ware lying in an unmarked grave, pale and blood-drained and decided no, dead was worse.
“I’m sure that won’t be necessary,” I said. “In the meantime, the rental car has vanished. And along with it my clothes and gear.”
“You have a company card,” Matei said. “Use it as you need it. I believe Amazon can offer overnight shipping for any clothes and items you cannot purchase locally.”
“If you’re sure that’s okay.” I could not stop a grin. A shopping spree? On the boss’s nickel?
“We are not hurting for money,” Matei said. “I have been putting a little away for a very long time.”
I blinked and stared at the phone. Had he just copied my “Love at First Bite” joke? He never joked. And he would never make a joke from a vampire parody romantic comedy. Maybe he really was getting better at imitating humans.
I don’t usually (never, so far as I can remember) do a “Blast from the Past” with a post so recent but the issue with Alex Jones and Infowars merits attention.
For aliens who have just arrived from the Ferenda Galaxy, let me sum up. A number of platforms, within a very short span of time between them all permanently banned Jones and Infowars from using their services.
People point out that it’s not a First Amendment issue, since they’re not the government but private services and can choose who they do business with (so long as they aren’t refusing to do a custom baked and decorated cake, I guess–don’t worry about it, Alien just arrived from the Ferenda Galaxy, just an exercise in hypocrisy of those making the current arguments). However, it remains a very disturbing trend.
Don’t get me wrong. Jones is a fruitcake his “commentary” laughable. But that’s the proper approach to dealing with it: laughter. Yet what I’m seeing is claims like one from Senator Chris Murphy (D-CT) saying that banning sites like Infowars is necessary to the “Survival of our Democracy”.
“Sites like.” They aren’t going to stop with Infowars. No, there’s always someone who’s the “most extreme” example of whatever they want to silence. And there’s always another target. They’ve been setting precedents for some time and continue to use those precedents to quell any further disagreement with the Party line. So, yeah, Jones it a fruitcake but, as H. L. Mencken said:
The trouble with fighting for human freedom is that one spends most of one’s time defending scoundrels. For it is against scoundrels that oppressive laws [to which I would add: corporate policies] are first aimed, and oppression must be stopped at the beginning if it is to be stopped at all.
Mr. Murphy, 1984 was a cautionary tale, not a how-to. And Newspeak, where you rewrite the language to mean something completely different, was a bad thing.
And so, this past May I wrote the following in response to a much smaller precursor of the current case:
A couple days ago I wrote about the Origins Game Fair screeching. This is part of a larger scheme where people, almost entirely from one end of the political spectrum (or one corner if you are into two-dimensional descriptors) of attempting to silence any dissent.
You know, it’s pretty sad when fictional characters make more sense than people who at least pretend to be real human beings. Consider, for instance, on the case of some pretty extreme examples, what Captain America had to say about actual, self-identified neo-Nazis (and not the “Everyone I don’t like is a Nazi” that’s become so popular these days) and their Jewish extremist opponents in a long-ago issue of Captain America:
“All my life I’ve had a habit of making speeches. Some people have criticized me for it. They may be right. Because I cannot express with words the horror I feel at seeing what you’ve done here today.
Don’t you realize that in your attack, you’ve attacked your own freedom as well?
The Freedom that guarantees all ideas–both noble and ignoble–the expression that is imperative if our society is to survive!
[Ed: speaking to Jewish protestor] You! Can’t you see that in stooping to your enemy’s level–you’re being made over in his image–that you’re becoming the very thing you loathe?
[Ed: Speaking to Neo-nazi] And You! In your fear and ignorance you deny reality! Rewrite history! I wish I could take you back with me to the day we liberated Diebenwald [Ed: Presume this is the name given to one of the death camps in the Marvel Universe]–let you smell the stomach-churning stench of death–let you see the mountain of corpses left behind by the corrupt madman and murderer you idolize!
You two aren’t interested in the truth—are you?
You’re only interested in your own self-consuming hate.
Two of a kind.
Freedom of speech means that, yes, even people who are saying vile things have a right to speak. You don’t have to listen to them, but you do not have the right to silence them, to prevent them from assembling (so long as it’s peaceable), from renting halls or air time, or even for speaking at your campus so long as there are people at your campus who want to hear them and they fill all the rules (which should not include limitations on content) any other speaker has to fulfill.
No, speech that you disagree with is not violence.
Let me cite another fictional character, Mike Harmon from the novel Ghost (Oh! John Ringo, No!) to kind of illustrate the idea:
“You’re not with the police?” the girl said, totally confused.
“Oh, come on,” Mike scoffed. “I know you’re an airhead, but use at least one brain cell. Do the police commonly shoot people through the leg to get information?”
“Well, they beat people up,” Ashley said, with relentlessly liberal logic.
“Did those guys beat you?” Mike asked, gesturing at the dead terrorists.
“Yes,” Ashley said, sobbing gently.
“Would you like me to shoot you through the knee so you can tell the difference?” Mike asked, puzzling over the load list.
If you think speech is violence there are only two possibilities: you’re a complete moron (and that’s an insult to complete morons) who has never experience violence and lacks even the rudimentary ability to imagine what it’s like, or you are lying.
I know which way I bet.
Speech is not violence. It might incite violence, and when the incitement is immediate and direct, then that might be a cause to intervene, but just saying things you despise is not. Examples:
“I hate brown haired people and wish they’d all die.” Allowed to say. You’d be an idiot and I’m allowed to mock you and say that you’re an idiot that should eat a bag of dicks and choke.
(Pointing, with an angry mob listening to you) “Seize that (brown haired) guy over there and beat him to death with sticks.” No, that justifies some intervention.
In most cases, the proper thing to do when somebody says things that you consider utterly outrageous, even vile, is given by another fictional character (oh, there was a historical person of that name, but this is a fictional adaptation). Rameses from The Ten Commandments (and while Charlton Heston may have been the “star”, Yul Brynner owned that movie):
Let him speak that men may know him mad.
Because if they are really that outrageous, then the more they speak, the more they’ll be ridiculous. And the more people will turn away from them because they are so ridiculous. You don’t have to silence them. They are their own worst enemies.
However, when you go out of your way to silence them, once again what’s happening can be summed up by another fictional character, Tyrion Lannister from Game of Thrones:
When you tear out a man’s tongue, you do not prove him a liar. You only show the world that you fear what he might say.
So, if you’re so afraid that what they say is so much more persuasive than what you say, you need to take a long hard look not at them but at yourself. Why do you lack confidence in your ability to defeat their words with words of your own?
I was born in the year 1215 in a small town in Westphalia As a boy, my parents apprenticed me to the famed alchemist Albertus Magnus. Under his tutelage I grew to adulthood and learned the mystical secrets of alchemy including the manufacture of the Elixir of Life. I have gone by many names through the centuries.
I was already centuries old when I encountered the creatures of darkness made manifest that I know only as Shadows. They have chased me down through the years for reasons I have never understood.
Light was the only weapon I had against these Shadows, light that could drive them back but not harm them. And so I ran. Every time the Shadows caught up with me I fled to a new identity, a new life, until inevitably they found me again. At long last, with nowhere left to run, I had to find some way to fight the Shadows, not just for myself, but for the people I had come to care about.
My name is Adrian Jaeger. This is my story:
“So.” Becki stood, left hand on her hip, right still hanging at her side, belligerence radiating from her. “You wanted to show us something?”
I sighed. We stood in the living room of my apartment. Jeff sat on the couch watching, but saying nothing.
Jeff surprised me. I had expected more resistance to what I had been saying from him, but he had taken what I’d said with calm acceptance. The events at the hospital had unnerved him, but he simply waited to see what I would do about my own story.
Becki, however, was a different story.
“What could I show you?” I asked. “I suppose we could wait twenty, thirty years and you’d see that I don’t age.”
“What about your philosopher’s stone? Isn’t that supposed to let you transmute base metals into gold?” Becki rubbed at her right arm. I noticed a tightening of her shoulders. The numbness of the Shadow’s touch was wearing off and the pain only just starting. Knowing what was to come, I wished I could do something, but nothing affected that freezing pain.
My lips twitched. “You know the tales. It isn’t actually a stone. It’s…well, I’ll get to that part later if you don’t mind. There’s one thing I can show you.”
I removed the vial of elixir from where I kept it tucked in a pouch behind my belt. I set it on the low table that fronted the couch.
“What’s that?” Becki asked.
“You’ll see,” I said. “One moment.”
I left her and Jeff in the living room while I stepped into the kitchen. I returned with a paring knife.
Becki’s eyebrows rose when she saw what I held. Jeff sprang off the couch. I held up my hand to placate them but they both eyed me warily.
With a quick stroke, I sliced deep into my left forearm. I quickly shifted my arm over the table before blood could drip onto the floor.
“My God! What the…” Becki stepped forward.
I dropped the knife and held up a hand to forestall Becki’s approach. Jeff slowly edged to the side, clearly trying to circle to grab me from behind.
“Give me just a few seconds,” I said. I picked up the vial and gripped the cap between my teeth. I spun the body of the vial free. Once it was open I pressed the tip of my right index finger over the opening and shook the vial to moisten my fingertip. I extended the fingertip and, holding the vial between thumb and middle finger spun it back into the cap.
I left the vial between my teeth and ran my moistened fingertip along the still-bleeding wound in my left forearm. The wound closed behind my finger, leaving a red weal as though from several days of healing. The small amount of elixir would not completely heal the wound, but this would be sufficient to demonstrate.
Another wipe of my hand cleared enough of the blood from my forearm to show the mostly healed cut.
“My…God.” Becki leaned close, grabbing my hand, she turned it to examine my arm. “How?”
“Elixir of Life.” I set the vial back on the table. “The transmutation of metals is trivial. This was the true goal of alchemy. With it you could cure any illness, heal any but the most instantly fatal of injuries, and—” I waved with my free hand indicating myself. “—extend life and youth indefinitely. I am over eight hundred years old. I am also nineteen.”
“Nineteen?” Jeff pried my arm out of Becki’s hands to perform his own inspection.
“I usually aim for a physical age of mid-twenties to mid-thirties, but I had to use a lot of elixir recently and…well, it saved my life and I suppose the drop in my apparent physical age was no real problem since I had to disappear and start over again.”
I rounded the table and sat on the couch Jeff had vacated.
“But…you could revolutionize medicine with this,” Becki said. She stood shoulder to shoulder with Jeff. From their position, they loomed over me.
“Please, sit,” I said. “How could I revolutionize medicine?”
Jeff sat in the chair. Becki, after looking around for a moment, joined me on the couch.
“What?” Becki said. “You can cure the sick, heal injuries. That would…”
“That would get me killed,” I said. “Or…something. I don’t really know what the Shadows want.”
I sighed. “Look, it’s not as easy as you think. It takes months, literal months, to make a vial of elixir. You asked about the philosopher’s stone? Well, my blood is that stone. Albertus did something, I don’t know what, but it changed me. Most of what I do requires my blood. Oh, sure, I can use the elixir to restore my blood easily enough but whatever it is that makes my blood work in alchemy is not so easily recovered.” I tapped the vial. “This is all that I have left. It will be another three months before I have more.”
I’ve done a variation of this as a soup. This is more as an entree. This makes a big batch that I can refrigerate and serve over several days. This isn’t a simple “set and forget” recipe like many of mine but I think the result is worth it.
4 lbs chicken breast meat
1 quart heavy cream.
2 cups grated cheddar change
1/4 cup minced garlic
1 tbsp thyme
1 tbsp basil
2 tsp pepper
1 tsp salt or to taste
2 lb broccoli, coarsely chopped
Cut the breast meat into 1 inch cubes.
Pour the cream into a large pot (it’s going to have to contain all the ingredients with room for “slosh” without spilling) and bring to a low boil. Add the cheese and stir to melt the cheese. Reduce the heat to very low.
Heat a large skillet over medium heat and grease. Add the garlic, thyme, basil, pepper, and salt. Stir over medium heat for 1-2 minutes. Transfer garlic and seasonings into the pot with the cream and cheese mixture.
Grease the pan again and add some of the chicken cubes. Make sure you don’t overcrowd the pan. You want to brown the chicken, not boil it in the released liquid. Stir fry the chicken until browned on all sides and add it to the pot with the cream et al. Continue with some more of the chicken. Repeat until all the chicken has been browned and added to the pot with the cream and other ingredients. Take the skillet off the heat. You’re done with that.
Increase the heat under the cream and chicken until it just starts to boil. Lower the heat again and simmer for about 10 minutes to insure the chicken is cooked through.
Stir the broccoli into the pot. Bring it to a low simmer again and cook an additional 2-3 minutes, just enough to heat the broccoli through.
Late because I was waiting for a render to finish.
I recently obtained the program Daz Studio (Daz3D) and have been experimenting with it as a possible source for cover illustrations. The program itself is free. Where they get their money is in “models” including figures, clothes and accessories, alterations to the models, and various other bits of content.
I stasted by working my way though some of the included tutorials.
The first was a “guided tour” of the user interface which produced this:
I then proceeded with various other example scenes:
I’ll admit I “cheated” a bit on this last one. The render was taking longer than I liked so I stopped it at 93% done and the above is the sresult of that. Good enough, I think.
The software makes pretty intensive use of both memory and processor power. Task Manager had the CPU pegged at 100% during that final render.
So far, I have used Daz3D for one cover. I used it to create the “artist” in the cover of Study in Black and Red.
When combined with other sources, and a bit of editing of the graphic itself (specifically I had to change the “do rag” color to show against the background) I created the final cover:
The anti-gun freedom deniers are out in force again. This time it’s “3D Printed guns.”
It all started some years ago when Cody Wilson of DefCad designed, built, and fired a gun, all the components of which were made in a 3D printer–and which design he made available online.
Enter the State Department. Using a provision of ITAR regulations, they made the claim that by sharing these files he was “exporting firearms without a license.”
Yep, the State Department was making the claim that sharing information–the detailed knowledge of how to make a particular firearm, a single shot firearm using a fairly weak pistol cartridge at that–was “exporting a firearm.” There’s nothing special about CAD files for a 3D Printer. You could build a far more effective firearm using a CNC milling machine (a cheaper option for firearms manufacture than a 3D printer). You can build firearms more effective than this 3D printed thing using a few dollars to a few tens of dollars of parts from your local home improvement store. And it’s not that much more involved to make homemade open bolt submachine guns which are already turning up in places where there are strict gun laws.
Information and the sharing of that information–which is at the heart of First Amendment protections–was what that State Department argument was. Wilson’s counterarguments were based on that: freedom of speech and of the press, the right to say, write, and share information without government interference. After five years of wrangling, the State Department folded. They granted his first amendment argument. Yay Freedom.
Of course the anti-gun Freedom deniers couldn’t stop there. Nope, we ended up with various municipalities filing lawsuits against Defcad and Wilson. We had politicians foaming at the mouth, screaming about how this would create a new era of untraceable and undetectable guns (as if we didn’t already have the capability easier. One wag pointed out an “undetectable” AR15 type rifle. He never mentioned that the only part of the rifle that would be made out of plastic is the lower receiver (and there are already plans for making AR receivers out of plastic kitchen cutting boards using hand tools) and the “furniture” (stock, pistol grip, and forward hand guard). Things like the barrel, bolt carrier group, and internal components would still be made out of metal. But then anti-gun folk have never been known for their expertise on firearms. Even President Trump has come down against these 3D printed guns. (I have noted before that Trump is not the friend of the Constitution, and particularly the 2nd Amendment, that some people hope for–he’s just not as bad as the typical Democrat.)
What these politicians and their tame judges are doing is establishing censorship of knowledge of how to make a firearm. The “CAD files” are nothing but a set of instructions–Move here. Put some material here. String material from here to here. Etc.–which, if followed leave you with parts that can be assembled into a firearm that is little more than a curiosity. They are attempting to censor information, instructions, rendered into an electronic format. There really is no way this can be construed as anything but a blatant violation of the First Amendment. Yes, yes, I know “shouting fire in a crowded theater” and all that. However, that restriction, voiced by the late Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. had several components. It did not say you could not truthfully (many people forget that the original was “falsely shouting fire in a crowded theater). It did not say you could not write “fire” on a piece of paper. It did not say you could not shout fire in your own home or back yard. Nor did it permit gagging people so that they were unable to shout “fire” (that old “prior restraint” thing).
But the big point is that whether they win in the courts (in which case the First Amendment loses) or not, it’s far too late to do them any good. When the State Department issued its ruling, people who had already obtained the files put them on various file-sharing services, some outside the US and beyond the reach of US law enforcement. They’ve been shared there for years. Hundreds of thousands if not millions of copies are already available “in the wild”.
I need a bit of a break from the economics stuff so here’s a blast from the past. Slightly updated.
Some folks say that hard science fiction should be limited to what is possible according to current scientific theory. Others (and I count myself among them) are a bit more flexible. Consider the following:
Imagine it’s 1880 and you’re a physical scientist (or “natural philosopher” as it was sometimes called). Someone approaches you with the following:
“I have here two lumps of a material called Uranium 235. If you slam them together correctly, they will release energy with the explosive force of more than one hundred million sticks of dynamite.”
You’d laugh at him. The very idea is preposterous. First off, what’s this “235” business? Uranium is Uranium. It doesn’t come in types. You’re familiar with the atomic theory of matter, right? Atomic. From the Greek atomos. It means “indivisible. A Uranium atom is a Uranium Atom is a Uranium atom. And this ridiculous release of energy? Energy can neither be created or destroyed. You’ve can convert from one form to another but that’s about it. If there was so much energy, whether chemical or mechanical, in Uranium to do as you suggest, it would tend to go off at the slightest provocation–Like, say, sneezing anywhere in the same county. What you suggest is flat out theoretically impossible.
Now, instead, suppose someone approached you with the following instead:
“You know, if you applied a force to something, like say with a rocket, and continued applying it for long enough, there is no ultimate bar to how fast it could go. Enough force, for enough time, and one could travel between the stars in weeks, if not days. Of course that much acceleration would crush most things and the engineering challenges are probably prohibitive, but there’s no theoretical bar to it.”
You’d probably have to agree. After all velocity is simply acceleration over time, and acceleration is simply force divided by mass. Enough force, applying enough acceleration, for enough time and any velocity could be achieved without limit, at least theoretically. The engineering challenges might be prohibitive but there were no theoretical limits.
Now, instead of 1890 imagine it’s 1990. Now the possibility/impossibility of those two events have reversed. We’ve discovered the electron, neutron, and proton (and never mind things like quarks) and learned that, far from being “indivisible” the atom is actually made up of components. We’ve discovered that there are differences among atoms–isotopes–of the same element. And we’ve discovered that matter and energy can be interchanged and very small amounts of matter can, in the right circumstances, be converted to very large amounts of energy as we understand them in human terms. And we’ve demonstrated the very thing in the first example–slapping two pieces of Uranium 235 together to make whopping big explosions. (And using different materials we’ve made even bigger booms.) As for the other, we’ve found that force applied to an object will produce different accelerations depending on how fast one sees the object as moving, i.e what your frame of reference is, and the faster it is moving relative to your frame of reference–the closer it’s speed is to that of light which is the same in all reference frames–the less acceleration a given force will produce, with the result that it can never reach, let alone exceed, the speed of light.
Back in 1890 physical theory would declare certain things to be flat out impossible. Other things were theoretically possible but perhaps practically impossible (such as, say, focusing light so that it can burn through an inch of steel in the blink of an eye). Other things were readily achievable.
With the revolution in modern physics that came shortly thereafter, those categories got shuffled. Some things that were utterly impossible under the old theory were found to be possible and even readily achievable once you knew how. Other things that had been theoretically possible but difficult (which was why they had not yet been done) were found to be theoretically impossible.
The one constant was that things that had already been done clearly had to remain possible. Obviously, whatever has been done is possible. (What was done might not necessarily be what you think was done–ask any stage magician–but what was done remains possible.)
So what about 2090? Or 2190? or 9990? Will the things that the physical theory of that future day considers possible and impossible be the same as today?
I suggest that it is only hubris that would lead one to suggest that they will. About the time of 1880 many scientists of the day believed we had determined all there was to physical theory. All that was left was adding a decimal or two to the measurement of various physical constants and we’d be done. But then, a few years later Michelson and Morley performed their famous experiment where they attempted to measure the movement of the Earth through the Lumineferous Aether that had to exist given the demonstrated wave nature of light–only they didn’t find it. And about the same time the photoelectric was discovered and it didn’t behave at all like it should in the then current physical theory and… Well, one thing led to another.
A few years ago, with the discovery of the Higgs Boson, I have heard at least one physicist say that it completely validates the Standard Model. We’re done. Nothing new left to discover about the underlying structure of the Universe.
Yeah. I’ve heard that line before. Unless one has the hubris to believe that we have actually achieved the final answer to physical theory, that all our current answers to “how does the universe work” are right, that “this time for sure”, then one must conclude that some things we think are possible will very likely turn out to be impossible. And some things we think are impossible (theoretically impossible) will turn out to be possible after all.
And nobody knows which things.
What we’re waiting for is the scientist to look at the results of an experiment, scratch his head, and go “That’s funny. Shouldn’t this be…”
As a writer of science fiction set in the future (or in a present with alien cultures more advanced than our own), part of the job is to explore these possibilities. Now, most people don’t expect a science fiction writer to explore the detailed ramifications of “what if conservation of Baryon number can be violated?” or “what if it’s possible to alter the Pauli Exclusion Principle?” or even “What if Planck’s Constant isn’t actually a constant?” but limiting oneself to what we now “know” is probably the least likely future of all.
People often talk about wanting to get rid of the “middle man” in buying and selling in order to bring down costs. There’s just one thing. While the middle man may increase the price they generally bring down the cost.
Allow me to explain.
From time to time, I’ve gone to a “u-pick” farm to get fresh strawberries. I could drive out there, get a box, and go down the row of strawberry plants picking fresh, ripe strawberries and when I’m done, I have the box weighed and pay substantially less than the same amount of strawberries would cost at my local grocery store. And that’s not counting the ones I ate–everybody does it–while picking.
Cost saved right?
Consider a few things. The farm is about an hour’s drive from where I live. So that’s two hours round trip in addition to the time spent picking. Two hours, and gas money on top of what I spent at the farm itself. Now maybe folk might want to discount that because…fresh strawberries generally better than I can get in most stores.
But you can’t just discount it. Imagine your typical weekly shopping cart. Consider every item in it. Now imagine going to where that item is grown or made and buying directly from the grower/manufacturer. And if you live in the Midwest, like I do–or anywhere far from the tropics, and that cart contains oranges, grapefruit, or anything that requires subtropical or tropical heat to grow that means driving/flying/boating to a place where it does grow. And you’re going to have to go to dozens of different places, all to get the things that would fill that imaginary shopping cart.
While the price of the items would likely be less than you pay at the store, wow much would all that traveling around to get it cost? How much of your time would be absorbed just going from farm to manufacturer to craftsman to a different farm and so on, all to get the basket of items that amount to your weekly shopping?
Instead, we have middle-men. We have wholesalers who gather items from manufacturers around the world. We have shipping companies that do nothing but carry goods from one location to another. and we have stores which provide a variety of different items in one place from which you can select all at once. Yes, each of those “middle men” need to be paid, and their pay adds to the price of the good when you buy it at the store. But they do so by dramatically reducing the cost in terms of the time and effort (and gas) that it would take you to go and deal with each of the producers individually. It might be fun or useful to do one or two but when it comes to everything a person might want? The middle men make it not only cheaper (in total cost) but possible at all.
Another aspect is scale. In college I took several art classes. A lot of our practice work was done on newsprint. And while newsprint was about the cheapest paper in the art supply stores, it wasn’t what I would call cheap. Perhaps, if a paper mill was conveniently located I might go and get my paper there. There’s just one problem. Have you seen the rolls of newsprint as they come from the mill? I have. I have no idea how much one of those weighs but several hundred pounds at least. As a college student, I could come up with a few bucks for a pad of newsprint from the art supply store. Coming up with enough money for one of those gigantic rolls? Not so much.
This is another thing that middle men do. They take large units that come from suppliers and break them down into more manageable chunks for the consumer.
All too often people decry the middle man for “driving the price up” without recognizing that the middle man is actually reducing their costs. They don’t realize that without that middle man they would be spending time and resources that could be put to better use elsewhere just to obtain the things they obtain now. The most likely result would be to cut back on the things they purchase now–after all, how many people in the midwest really can drive or fly to Florida to buy a crate of oranges so they can have juice with breakfast?–with a commensurate drop in quality of life.
Problems arise when those middle men charge more than the value they add by reducing the total cost of acquiring the goods. In a market economy, this provides incentives for people to seek alternate suppliers or simply use less of the products these particular middle men are dealing with and using alternate goods and services that provide better value.
And sometimes changing conditions change the relative value that a particular middle man provides. In the modern era, for instance, the combination of electronic communication and fast shipping we have more people dealing either directly with manufacturers or regional distributors as opposed to dealing with local retailers. The changing technology in some cases has lowered the cost of skipping one more more levels of middle-men enough that it no longer justifies the price those levels need to add to be able to function.
While this may be uncomfortable for those in the levels being “skipped”, who will need to find other ways to generate income if they are to maintain their own standard of living, the effect on the economy as a whole is to bring more goods and services to the consumers at lower cost increasing the standard of living of the population as a whole.