Kent Pitman

Kent Pitman
New England, USA
Philosopher, Technologist, Writer
I've been using the net in various roles—technical, social, and political—for the last 30 years. I'm disappointed that most forums don't pay for good writing and I'm ever in search of forums that do. (I've not seen any Tippem money, that's for sure.) And I worry some that our posting here for free could one day put paid writers in Closed Salon out of work. See my personal home page for more about me.


DECEMBER 17, 2008 8:01AM

Whatever Should Be, Should Be

Rate: 27 Flag

A technical standard is a very precise document that is used as a reference for how something should work in the technical world. I spent several years of my life working in this arena and I’d like to relate a peculiar thing I learned in that time.

I learned that the word “should” means “don’t have to.”

I was receiving comments one day from a colleague who had read some text I’d written. He had drawn a red line through a number of sentences I’d written and I couldn’t figure out why. “Why did you do that?” I asked.

“Those sentences don’t say anything,” my colleague explained.

“Of course they do. They tell you what you should do.” I protested.

“Or what? What happens if you don’t. Is it a requirement?”

“No, it’s not a requirement but—”

“Ok, then. Now this phrase over here uses ‘shall.’ Because of the use of ‘shall,’ the user has to do something. It’s in the imperative mode, and so it’s a requirement. And this one here, with ‘must’—another requirement. But the rest of this stuff over here uses ‘should,’ so that’s not a requirement. Nothing happens if the reader ignores your advice.”

“He’s supposed to at least try.”

“But he can decide not to. So from a requirements standpoint, there’s no difference.”

“Right,” I admitted.

“So ‘should’ really just means ‘doesn’t really have to,’ ” he emphasized in triumph.

“Right,” I admitted sadly.

“So take out the text. It has no meaning.”

Although it is routine for Libertarians and Republicans to speak of self-reliance and financial independence, it is never the case in a modern capitalist society that the wealthy have achieved anything on their own because by definition the entire society is based on the consent of others to indulge an economic system in which such wealth is even possible.

I speak of the modern capitalist society because certainly in times past, when the world was underpopulated, there were vast wildernesses available for conquest, and it was theoretically possible to find a place in the woods where one lived without contact with civilization on one’s own. Although even then, it was common to take with one the tools of civilization, such as clothing and weapons, as well as society’s more abstract fruits, such as health and education. The likelihood that a human being, left alone in the wilderness with none of this would survive very long is vanishingly small. So probably even then, and certainly now, we are all beholden to society for our success.

Since at least the time of the New Deal and the Great Society, we as a nation have tended toward acknowledging the importance of the role of government in protecting our weakest members.

Nor is this mere charity on the part of government. Government derives its power from the consent of the governed. For example, simple mathematics tells us that it cannot be the case that the majority of the population has above-average wealth. That means that the majority of people, upon agreeing to participate in capitalistism, have agreed to take a financial position that is less than average. The theory is that by allowing some to get rich, others will benefit, and the wealth of the country will improve.

It should be easily seen that if large numbers of people are failing to see their basic needs met, while a few profit in a manner that is grossly out of proportion, such a society cannot long stand because at that point the social contract permitting the accumulation of wealth has been violated. A government that draws its power from the consent of the electorate will naturally find it in its own best interest to assure that the price of success on the high end is that basic human needs are serviced on the other end.

The stronger among us must therefore always remember that their wealth is a benefit provided under a contract made with all of society, that the wealth will be used for the betterment of all. Well, not every dime of it. If we required that all the money a person made went to charity, that would be like not giving a person the money in the first place.

And yet, many suffer now after the failure of companies from which a tiny number of individuals have seen handsome profits. What must those who have profited do? What is the moral obligation of the well-to-do in the present times? Is there a special obligation on the part of those who have directly profited from the situations that have bankrupted others?

Well, let’s not speak of obligations, shall we? How rudely pushy of us. It’s true that some may be cast from their homes or have nothing to eat, but really—must we be so rude as to speak in the imperative? If someone made an enormous profit, that’s their money. They have earned their right to do with it whatever they wish. So let us avoid the impertinence of imperatives and speak in a more polite way. Because this matter certainly calls for politeness. Let’s just offer polite advice and they’ll know what must be done with that advice.

They should care about the fate of the poor. Whatever else they do, they should make it their business to assure that their enrichment does not come at the expense of others.

There. That’s it. Just some advice. Nothing pushy. Not a requirement. Just a request that they try.

I feel better now, knowing we all share a clear understanding of what should happen.

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You're asking our society as a whole to make some BIG changes. We would first have to redefine our basic needs.

Can't leave out Hummers, Ipods, Xboxes, etc...I thinkthey have replaced food, shelter, etc..

Good post. Great compliment to my first cup of coffee(one of my basic needs)
Forgot to add OS as a basic need.
Kent, this is a DEEP piece and so well written. You are a craftsman of the highest quality. I have to read again and let it sink in...

Rated for its philosophical aspect as I love philosophy.

Thanks, rijaxn. Of course, that's why I explained what “should” means. With a definition like that, the hummer owners should have an easy adjustment.

Rated for the important content and you warm my tech writing teacher's heart by making clear that modals have meanings ;0)
Great post. As rijaxn says, goes well with the am caffeine drip.

Keep this one circulating.

Rated because it "should" be.
Everyone MUST read this piece (if I say "should", they might not).
Highly rated for quality of writing, content and compassionate, unselfish viewpoint. Kent for 2016!
As a veteran of working for a government housing agency I can tell you that there are many people who would benefit from society changes. They aren't looking for a handout or an "entitlement" as some would have you believe. They are looking for justice.

One day the stronger among us will be weak and how we treat others when we are strong will either reward or haunt us.
Excellent piece. The proportional ratio of wealth to poverty in not only this country, but the world, is despicable. America is the poster child though, and things seem only to get worse.
We only have ourselves to blame though. We are, after all, the type of people that will forgo heat in December to keep the cable on so that we can watch catatonic socialites spend ungodly amounts of money on clothes and shoes.
The Rome analogy has been played to death, but that's only because it works so well.
We will be making our playlist on myspace while America burns if people don't change not only themselves, but our culture.
Well said. Very well said. Your post *should* be required reading for those who have benefitted greatly from this society. Rated because its good. When I began my career 20 years ago, I learned the hard way what "should" means. Depending on the context it can mean the difference between success and failure.
Kent, your post is so astute in so many ways I'm not sure I can count them all this morning. (Although, in my defense, I'm a little tired.)

We should do a lot of things. But it's likely that, unless it's required, a lot of people wouldn't.
Nicely written commentary on why/how the well-off need to think of others. Much as was true during the Great Depression, the amount of wealth in this country that is controlled by a very small proportion of people is huge. I like your take on the social contract, and how this may have reached a breaking point. Well done.
Excellent article. This should be printed on every Editorial Page of every newspaper around the world. Outstanding balanced viewpoint.

Well done, Kent!
Very thought provoking piece, Kent.
Not so sure about the "should" aspect of what those who enjoy a greater amount of prosperity should do. This is where a fair tax policy would come into play.
Prior to the Reagan revolution, when this innane concept of giving rich people more so that in their benevolence they might "trickle down" a little of it on you and me, we had much higher corporate tax rates in this country. This incentivized the owners of corporations to spread more of the profit around, in the form of wages and benefits, to the laborers who helped them create the wealth. If not, the profits would be taxed at a higher rate.
Once the upper tiers were stripped from the tax codes, the incentive was to keep the money in the ownership, which would then use it to buy stakes in other companies, effectively spreading their risk out, but not creating any new wealth in the working classes and further concentrating wealth. This is why we have so much of the benefits of these last 28 years gushing upward and so little coming down (trickle hardly defines it).
So while I agree with much of what you say here in terms of social contract, I think changing "should" to "will" by a more progressive tax code would have the effect "should" makes us hope for.
Rated. Excellent piece Kent.
Whatever else they do, they should make it their business to assure that their enrichment does not come at the expense of others.

Kent and I share a lot of the same political views, so I won't do more than add some data to this statement, for perspective. Wikipedia makes a document from the US Census Bureau available [PDF], showing how income distribution has changed between 1967 and 2003. There's a lot of fluctuation, but here are a few long-term stats, for your benefit. In 1967, households in the 90th income percentile brought in about 210% of the median household income, or 904% of households in the 10th percentile. In 2003, households in the 90th brought in about 275% of the median and 1,120% of the 10th. Now, over that time, everyone's been getting richer. In 2003 (i.e. inflation-adjusted) dollars, the 10th percentile household annual income has been going up by a rate of 0.8%, the median at a slightly lower 0.7%, but the 90th percentile at about twice that, 1.4%. All this is just to say that in the long run, over the past 40 years or so, we've done very little to change income inequity in this country--in fact, it's been growing pretty steadily. If we looked at the 95th percentile or 99th percentile, we'd see enormously larger differences.

Well written and thoughtful post.

I often think about the issues that you pose when we have fellow citizens, many of whom are very well off, who vehemently oppose tax increases while at the same time we have young people going off to fight a war, started on dubious premises, for paupers’ wages. What does it mean to be a citizen of this country in terms of our duties and responsibilities to our fellow and future citizens? If I am truly a responsible citizen of this country, does it not mean that I have a responsibility to ensure that my fellow citizens have reasonable access to the necessities of life and an education system that will allow their children to be responsible and productive citizens and allow our country to prosper in the future? Are the requirements for being a patriot limited to frequent verbalizations of jingoistic and bellicose phrases and wearing a flag pin on my lapel?

Again, thanks for writing down your thoughts.
Honestly, Aaron, the post is something of a Rorschach test. I didn't actually “propose” changing anything. I was careful with my use of “should,” which I clearly identified as meaning “don't really have to at all.” What I did was raise an ethical concern for discussion. I'm not sure what the right answer is. But I'm pretty sure we're not watching a model of equitable outcome and behavior playing out just now.
You wrote: “So while I agree with much of what you say here in terms of social contract, I think changing "should" to "will" by a more progressive tax code would have the effect "should" makes us hope for.”

It's a very minor point not related directly to your remark, but you might find this funny. There's a hyperlink from "shall" in the article to this text, too. But I bet some people missed it: Click here for some notes from Strunk and White about the correct uses of shall and will.
Kent - I'd rate this 17 times if I could! Once alone for the Carl Sagan quote, another for the fine use of fonts & boxes, your allusion to the wonderful "should" vs. "shall" (vs. "must" or "will") argument that pervades all technical writing and which I could never quite sort out correctly, and lastly, but of course, not least,
the brilliance of your argument.

You have cogently and compellingly explained the basic premise upon which a fair and just society MUST indeed rest. And, accordingly, you have driven the stake through the heart of the "trickle-down" theory of economics.

Capitalism is, by its very nature, a zero-sum ball-game. In order for one to have more, another must have less. As much as I'd love to believe in a theory of abundance (the more one has, the more everyone has), it hasn't seemed to play out that way in the American system.
LPS, I don't know if I agree as an objective fact that in order to have more, another has to have less... I think the game is not zero-sum. However, I do agree with what I take to be your sentiment which is that the fact that it's not zero-sum doesn't imply that all is well. Too often people get almost euphoric at the understanding that it's possible (and it is) for someone to get rich without injuring someone else who doesn't without giving thought to the fact that it's also possible for the rich to get rich with injuring someone else... I think we need a public dialogue on this matter.
kent - you are once again correct. I guess I should not have said it is an objective FACT that it is zero-sum. It is more that it seems to play out that way in the way our corporations have been structured -

i.e., in order for Ken Lay to have golden toilet-paper holders, the corporation must pay workers less or lay off people.

& though not necessarily zero-sum, the capitalist model MUST acknowledge that there are winners and losers. While the winners may not get there on the "backs" of the losers, the existence of those who work for less is part of the society that allows the winners to "have more."

I guess to me it's part of the same philosophical discussion re: manifestation that has been taking place here on OS - i.e., how much is attributable to one's efforts vs. how much is a factor of the luck of being born into this particular society, family, location, educational environment, etc.

I am a big believer in the inter-relatedness of all things and that no man (nor his success) exists in a vacuum; thus, the successful do have a responsibility for sharing their gifts.

Put another way, a just society makes sure that the losers, at least, have their basic needs met. It seems to me that most of us agree on this point. Sorry for the long comment - I hope it makes sense.
Terrific post - I love your argument and the layout of your post. I agree wholeheartedly that great wealth is impossible without great exploitation. Unfortunately, the exploited in this country have bought into the current social contract in hopes that someday they will be at the top of the heap. I remember reading some time ago a quote by John Holt, a progressive educator, to the effect of "it's a great day for the rich when they can convince the poor that their true and worst enemies are those who are even poorer". Our entire society needs to rethink this arrangement.
Kent wrote: "simple mathematics tells us that it cannot be the case that the majority of the population has above-average wealth. That means that the majority of people, upon agreeing to participate in [capitalism], have agreed to take a financial position that is less than average."

lps wrote: "Capitalism is, by its very nature, a zero-sum ball-game. In order for one to have more, another must have less."

DustBowlDiva wrote: "great wealth is impossible without great exploitation."

This is the real problem with the philosophy behind Kent's original essay, and many of the comments. Too many of you are thinking only of dividing up a static pie, rather than of growing the pie.

Wealth can be created, not just reassigned.

I've linked to this before, but for a different perspective, check out Paul Graham's essay on wealth, particularly the short sections in the middle on "The Pie Fallacy" and "Craftsmen".
Oh, and Kent's display of CSS in this blog post is awesome. The formatting even showed up in my RSS reader! Wow, I'm impressed...
About the formatting, thanks, Don. Some notes on the formatting are here, though maybe not quite enough to do what I did above... close, though.

As for the zero-sum thing, I also corrected LPSrocks on this because I saw you coming a mile away. I don't think it distracts from her main point, though. In fact, your reply stopped where I predicted it would, disproving the zero-sum claim but not proving that lack of zero-sum was enough to make things ethical/safe/responsible/fair--pick your term. It seems to me the non-zero-sum space is large and includes boths, so is not proof of justice.
Kent: have I really become so predictable? How disappointing! :-)

Yes, justice, of course. But you haven't really addressed this sense of moral obligation, in a non-zero sum world. lpsrocks probably alluded to the best part: what fraction of good outcomes is due to luck? That kind of wealth seems reasonable to spread to all; and indeed, we tax lottery winners far more than almost any other kind of income.

But once you realize that wealth can be created via hard work, much of your examples lose force. Like, half of society having "below average" incomes. In the extreme, the choice is between a society where everybody is poor, or a society where half the people are unchanged, and half become richer (through their own efforts). Why is that somehow unjust to the unchanged ones?

Of course, the devil is in the details. How much of US personal wealth comes from luck, or inheritance? How much from fraud or exploitation? Vs. how much from the creation of new wealth via hard work?

What seems "reasonable" and "moral", to me, depends a lot on the answers to these questions, the relative proportions on where the wealth comes from.

But I don't see your post (or the other comments) addressing these issues. The arguments I see seem strongest in a zero-sum world, but our economy isn't a zero-sum world, so they mostly just don't apply.

Yes, that's not a positive argument for justice. But it leaves me with, "I have no (new) information". Hence no conclusions (yet) follow.
I'm not sure if you could do away with greed, but if you did away with the notion that you might starve if you didn't knuckle under to someone else, that might be enough of a lever to change the balance of power in bargaining a lot...