Wealth Redistribution, The Law of the Jungle & Seeds of Revolution

We look on with hope and concern as revolution breaks out across the Middle East, but as the world’s great bastion of democracy we seem to consider ourselves immune from civil unrest. I think that’s a mistake. The conservative agenda is planting the seeds of revolution in America, and in a democracy revolution does not require violent rebellion. It simply requires the votes of an oppressed and organized majority.

Unbelievably, conservatives’ solution to the looming deficit crisis continues to focus on cutting back social programs for the poor and middle class and leaving marginal tax rates in the highest brackets at historically low levels. Progressive taxation and wealth redistribution have become hot buttons conservatives press to denounce the liberal agenda, equating any interference with free market forces with socialism, an evil so obvious it requires no further argument. But attacks on wealth “redistribution” imply that the starting point is a “correct” distribution brought about by free markets, and my question for laissez faire capitalists is this: “Why do you only object to restraints on liberty that diminish your wealth?”

We are a society of laws that create the environment for wealth creation. Property rights do not exist in nature–there are no laws in the jungle, and without laws there are no property rights, and without property there can be no wealth. The right to own property to the exclusion of others is bestowed by governments–the people, in a democracy–as a way to maintain order and encourage productivity. It is the most fundamental right in a capitalist society.

Yet this fundamental right is itself an enormous restraint on liberty. In the jungle, “ownership” of property exists only for so long as it can be defended against others. The grant of property rights by law is thus the greatest redistribution of wealth in the history of mankind, shifting the natural right to possess land or things from the most powerful (whether by physical strength, weaponry or the ability to amass forces) to those who stake valid legal claims (the intelligent and crafty?). While this is a sound way to organize a productive society, let’s not pretend there are not winners and losers; let’s not pretend the baseline chosen by conservatives as the “correct” distribution is one produced by natural forces.

Laws are contracts among men, and no man would willingly enter a contract against self interest. In fact, even the law generally renders contracts entered into under duress unenforceable. It follows, then, that when men subject themselves to laws created at the societal level, there must be something of value exchanged in return. In the social contract that forms the basis of any government, I’d argue that the value received by the masses is equal opportunity and a safety net (defined by the relative wealth of the society) for those whose abilities do not permit them to compete effectively for a fair share of resources. Is a minimum quality of life for the masses–who have given up their freedom to take whatever nature offers–too great a price for the wealthy to pay for (relatively) free markets, which do not exist in nature?

The American conservative movement is trying to renegotiate this social contract at a time when resources have become increasingly concentrated in the hands of the few. The top 1% of households own about 35% of the national wealth; the top 20% control about 85% of wealth. (If you have net worth above $500,000, you’re in the 20%.) This is the backdrop against which conservatives claim that our tax system is too progressive, that the wealthy bear too great a burden and the social safety net must be cut back to reduce the national debt. All these damn laws that effectively redistribute weath (hah!) are a restraint on free markets and the rights of the most productive members of society.

Apparently, there is little objection to the laws that allowed for this concentration of wealth, whether or not they interfere with free markets. Corporations, which provide the mechanism for amassing capital, exist only as legal fictions. Patents and copyrights place restraints on free market forces in favor of the creators of intellectual property. Expensive regulations maintain the fair and proper functioning of markets. Police forces and armed forces protect valuable property rights from criminals and foreign powers. Many men have died to protect our system of economic freedom, few who’ve had country club memberships. The wealthy benefit from these expenditures (in human life and national treasure) disproportionately, yet somehow this argument never comes up when conservatives urge a flat tax in lieu of progressive income taxation. (The flat tax is a particular peeve of mine, more on that in a later post, I’m sure.)

Don’t get me wrong, I believe people should generally be allowed to operate under the belief that they will keep what they earn, but free markets are not gods to be blindly worshipped. They are a means of achieving the goals of society–maximization of total wealth (productivity) and fair distribution. When free markets fail to achieve the goals of society, interference is warranted. The principle that the great capitalists will raise the standard of living of the working class simply by pursuing their self interest is proving a flawed assumption. Besides just getting too greedy (grossly disproportionate exec pay, criminally reckless tax cuts for the wealthy), capitalists are not appropriately taking into account societal risks in calculating self-interest (climate change, systemic financial system risk), warranting government regulation.

But the one societal risk to which conservatives seem most blind is violent or nonviolent rebellion by a disenchanted working class. In a law-based society, when the rules start to favor an increasingly small minority, the majority will eventually abandon the rules. Ask George III or Louis XVI. Or if you prefer to speak with the living, ask Hosni Mubarak or Moammar Gadhafi. Even if conservatives don’t buy into the moral imperative for a wealthy society to maintain a decent standard of living for its working class, it’s in their economic self- interest to maintain that minimum standard. If the 20% doesn’t start taking better care of the 80%, eventually the 80% will get organized enough to vote in politicians who recognize that the Constitution makes no promises about free markets or a “correct” distribution of wealth. Conservatives’ greed will lead to the destruction of the economic system that allows them to create and maintain a very unnatural distribution of society’s wealth.

My third novel, tentatively entitled HOSTILE TAKEOVER, will take a deeper look at how foreign powers might sew these seeds of revolution to their advantage. Could Asian forces use their rapidly accumulating wealth to influence U.S. elections and/or lay claims to America’s resources? Stay tuned.

A Warm Welcome, a Mission Statement, and the Ebook Revolution

Welcome to my new blog, which I’m told is a must for all serious authors. Many writers use this venue to plug their books, and I’ll do some of that from time to time, but my intention is to use this space to address current issues in our rapidly changing world. My primary objective in writing fiction is to entertain, but I believe fiction is also an excellent medium for conveying ideas. A blog may be even more efficient if it can attract the attention of like-minded readers and has the advantage of being a two-way street. I’d love to hear what you think, too. Feel free to comment at length, whether you agree or disagree.

The world is indeed rapidly changing. In my first novel, THE JINX, published before the 2000 election, my characters dreamed about “revolutionary change, not evolutionary change.” The main themes addressed revolved around racism, and one of my “revolutionary” twists was the nomination of an African-American woman as a vice-presidential candidate. Today, we have an African-American president. While perhaps not as revolutionary in its message, THE JINX is still a great page-turner and delves much deeper into the way racism is perpetuated, from father to son, in much the same way my featured conspiracy led to the deaths of seven presidents. The book sold nicely and got great reviews, and it’s now available as an e-book for only $2.99 at Smashwords and (soon) at other fine online book retailers.

Despite revolution breaking out across The Middle East, the current revolution most on my mind is occurring in the publishing world. The ebook revolution is changing the way readers, writers and publishers think about buying and selling books. Borders is in bankruptcy, and I understand from sources inside the industry that publishers fear for their business model and their lives.

Readers and writers think about the publishing business in extraordinarily different ways. Readers have almost endless choices. Thousands of fiction and nonfiction books are published every year, and even the most prolific readers among us can only enjoy a few dozen of them. For the reader, narrowing those choices is the most difficult issue, and the market has evolved to make choices easier by creating gatekeepers, a network of publishing professionals and reviewers who select the best material generated by writers and guide the public towards the books that best suit individual tastes. Many of us devote our limited reading time to the latest and greatest from our favorite authors, so it’s hard for a newly published author to develop an audience. Most published authors, those who have made it past the gatekeepers, cannot earn a living from their writing.

From a new writer’s perspective, the publishing business is all about getting past the gatekeepers. There is a vast oversupply of unpublished work out there, and new authors face long odds to get published by a large, commercial house. The odds have become so great that an air of desperation pervades among the unpublished, or maybe it’s an air of oppression, the feeling of unjust exclusion that is a precursor to revolution.

The civility that once marked the industry is vanishing. Publishers rarely look at direct submissions from authors these days. An unpublished writer first has to intrigue a literary agent with a one-page “query” letter and maybe a few sample pages. Every agent I’ve spoken to or have read about says they are swamped with hundreds of these letters every week. Authors spend an incredible amount of time and energy worrying about and perfecting these query letters. Agents are so overwhelmed many have taken to simply ignoring queries that don’t interest them, which by most accounts is about 99% of them. Almost every published author has horror stories to tell about dozens of rejections before finally landing the coveted relationship; many have completed manuscripts that never cleared that bar. After spending months or years perfecting a 400-page novel, unpublished authors quickly become weary of being judged based on a two-paragraph summary, with no meaningful feedback and, most often, without even a response.

Agents are not completely to blame for this loss of civility. They are admittedly overwhelmed by material, and much of it is crap. Publishers don’t do much editing, anymore, and it’s the author’s responsibility to present a completed, well-crafted manuscript. I’ve been on the receiving end of unsolicited manuscripts, and a lot of them were poorly constructed early drafts. Many query letters telegraph the writer’s inexperience and poor storytelling craft. The deluge of this material has to be frustrating for agents, who are facing diminished demand from commercial publishers cutting their lists.

Unfortunately, the loss of civility impacts good writers and bad writers alike, and I’m guessing the bad writers, failing to recognize themselves, share in the frustration, the feeling that they are being unfairly excluded from the marketplace. Enter, the ebook revolution.

Self-publishing has always been an option for the most persistent of us, but print publishing can get expensive. My wife and I formed Redfield Publishers in 1999 to publish THE JINX (more on this in a future post, I’m sure), and produced the book (exclusive of marketing costs) for about $4 per copy with two print runs of 3,000 books each. Over the past two weeks I read up on ebooks and republished THE JINX on Smashwords for a total cost of, get this, zero. I don’t know if I’ll generate many new sales, maybe a few more when THE KING OF PAINE, goes online, but the book is back on the market for anyone interested and will remain there…forever.

Admittedly, a new author will need to invest something in a book cover design, which I already had, and may need to hire somebody to clean up the manuscript to make it ebook-ready, but the barriers to entry into the publishing market have been virtually eliminated. The gatekeepers have lost control of the gates. Thousands of unpublished authors are flooding the market with their shiny, new ebooks. The ebook revolution is here!

But before we all break out in song (I’d go with the Beatles’ “Revolution” to stick with the theme, although Kumbaya is rattling around in my skull right now), let’s take a lesson from The Middle East. Revolutions are messy. Sometimes the winners and losers are unclear. Sometimes the world might be better off with the tyrant even though the formerly oppressed are a lot better off. Now that writers have a cheap outlet for their books, readers have to wade through more crap to find material they like. On the other hand, authors have always had most of the responsibility for marketing their material to readers, and that won’t change (except in the greater amount of marketing to be generated by online sources, like (ahem) new author blogs).

The publishing industry is not dead yet. They still act as gatekeepers for people with limited time, although readers must pay for that service. Even ebooks from commercial publishers still cost over ten bucks, and a reader with time to spare can find quality ebooks from newbies and midlist authors who have flown the coop for $1 to $3. Some are even offering their work for free to build an audience. Authors are banding together to create a form of branding, a system of gatekeeping by endorsement that might replace the agent/publisher model. Ebook reviewers will create another subsystem for identifying quality books.

What does the future of the ebook revolution hold? I’m not sure yet. A few well-marketed ebook authors are making a killing. Amanda Hocking has cleared a couple of million dollars hawking her YA series. Joe Konrath, a modestly successful published author in print, has become the voice of the revolution. I recommend his blog, A Newbies Guide to Publishing, for a compelling economic argument in favor of self-publishing for authors. Readers should enjoy the wealth of low cost material, but I fear that the oversupply of material may ultimately overwhelm readers. I haven’t decided whether to self-publish my second novel, THE KING OF PAINE, as an ebook yet, but I’m getting close. Very, very close.

What are your thoughts on the ebook revolution?

The Jinx

“Blending a flair for history, a convincing sense of the inner workings of law firms, and more than a touch of Y2K apocalyptic folderol, Kahn has concocted a highly readable thriller…The Jinx is a remarkably well-crafted book.”

— Jonathan Groner, Legal Times

One dead client. A cryptic poem. Seven dead presidents.

This gripping tale of murder, politics, conspiracy and passion takes aim at the American political system, the white supremacy movement and racial stereotypes while offering a sinister explanation for the “20-Year Jinx” that has claimed the lives of seven presidents.

Young estate lawyer Benjamin Franklin Kravner discovers a cryptic poem among his murdered client’s possessions that hints at a 160-year vendetta against the American presidency. Ben’s skepticism wanes when he discovers an unusual phenomenon: the presidents elected every twenty years from 1840 through 1960 died in office, and Ronald Reagan barely survived an assassination attempt. Ben’s perilous journey leads him to the answer to his question: is the poem merely a dead man’s wacky conspiracy theory or is a powerful cabal primed to claim the White House as vengeance for their ancestor’s death?

“The Jinx dares us to set aside partisan politics and awaken the slumbering dream of Martin Luther King to mark the millennium presidential election. I can think of no better way to celebrate the new millennium than to elevate the eradication of racism to the nation’s top priority.”

—Nadine Strossen, President, ACLU and Professor of Law, New York Law School

The Jinx will appeal to readers of Grisham, Baldacci, Iles and anyone who enjoys an intriguing conspiracy theory. Buy the book:

EBOOK:   AMAZON   BARNES & NOBLE   SMASHWORDS

HARDCOVER:   AMAZON

Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

“Fast-paced action scenes move the drama along at a good clip…Kahn’s debut effort packs a punch.”

From Midwest Book Review

“Kahn has produced a first-rate novel that ranks with John Grisham and Frederick Forsyth.”

From Evening Times

The Jinx is a clever, well-crafted pageturner that weaves history, politics and the law into an unconventional Washington novel, which, at its best, raises important questions about the state of overt, systemic and subtle racism in the U.S. and in the minds of its citizens and leaders…As campaign rhetoric has taken a tone of renewal for the next millennium, with each candidate offering a vision of America’s future, The Jinx also offers its own vision of America’s future that includes working toward the eradication of racism in the next millennium.”

From Amarillo Globe-News

“In a superb blend of logic and suspenseful adventure, Larry Kahn methodically outlines a fictional conspiracy that is believably scary, made all the more real by his protagonist, mild-mannered Ben Kravner. While Ben is no swashbuckling suspense-thriller hero, he takes us through chase scenes that play like a wide-screen movie.”

From The To Be Read Pile

“The idea of connecting such a random series of events into an ongoing historical conspiracy is a neat one and Kahn pretty much manages to pull it off with some convincing twists and some well thought out characters. Though it is perhaps not quite as good as King Of Paine, this can be excused since The Jinx was Kahn’s first novel and hence his style here is more of a work in progress that is closer perfected in his much later thriller.That being said, for a first novel, this is pretty good stuff and easily as good as say The Da Vinci Code or other similar conspiracy novels.”

Product Details

  • Hardcover: 417 pages
  • Publisher: Redfield Publishers (January 2000)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0967307740
  • ISBN-13: 9780967307749
  • Also available as an ebook
  • Larry and Ellie Kahn

  • When I was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease in 2010, my neurologist told me there was nothing I could do to slow down an inevitable slide into disability. So I simply (apathetically?) went about the business of researching my third novel for over a year until I crossed paths with others who had discovered a curiously overlooked goldmine of scientific research suggesting vigorous exercise could help slow the progression of PD and improve quality of life.

     

    After experiencing the impact of exercise myself, my wife, Ellie, and I began brainstorming with other believers about how to effectively spread the gospel of exercise and hope.  We formed PD Gladiators in 2013, a nonprofit charged with developing a plan to ally metro Atlanta fitness instructors and clinicians to convince people with PD to take a proactive approach to managing their disease. PD Gladiators entered agreements with the Atlanta YMCA, Livramento Delgado Boxing Foundation, Yellow River Center and other independent fitness instructors to build a network of PD-specific exercise classes based on PD Gladiators’ promise to promote the exercise research and the PD Gladiators Fitness Network to local clinicians to create the referral “pipeline” necessary to make the adapted fitness programs sustainable. I believe recruiting the support of influential clinicians in our community from the start was the critical insight that has led to the phenomenal growth of the Network.

     

    By 2018, the Network consisted of over 60 weekly classes, and metro Atlanta “gladiators” logged almost 25,000 class visits for the year! On August 1, 2018, the Parkinson’s Foundation and PD Gladiators determined they could better serve the needs of the Parkinson’s community through an organizational unification. Ellie and I served on the Advisory Board for the Parkinson’s Foundation Georgia until retiring in October 2019. PD Gladiators Executive Director Annie Long continues to manage and grow the Network as an employee of the Parkinson’s Foundation.

     

    Ellie and I still practice the proactive, hopeful approach that we  preach. With Ellie’s loving support, I exercise daily, eat a nutritious diet supplemented as recommended by Dr. Laurie Mischley (a Parkinson’s researcher and naturopathic doctor practicing in Seattle), and have adopted good sleep habits. While excited to begin the retirement we had deferred to nurture PD Gladiators, I intend to devote some of my energy–without stress and deadlines–to brainstorm ideas for other areas of Parkinson’s care in need of intervention  for consideration by government and charitable organizations with the mission and resources to undertake these projects.

     

    I believe that problem-solving is a team sport, and I encourage you to join in the discussion. Let’s make Parkinson’s Ideas, Man an incubator for high impact solutions to the issues that effect us most.