There's no need to sugarcoat it

The Tales from 2040 books discuss many controversial topics and difficult problems, and they have received their fair share of negative feedback. Some colorful excerpts:

...big business already owns our government and controls basically every aspect of our lives .... You think corporations should have even more power? Are you insane?[response]

— Anonymous reviewer

Who the [expletive] are you to criticize Bill Gates? ... Why don’t you come back and try again when you’ve done something yourself, Apple fanboy.” [response]

— M. Johansen


You are a [expletive] terrible writer... if it took you seven years to write three short books. Fiction does not take that [expletive] long. I could have written any of your ‘tales’ in a month. [response]

— Anonymous reviewer

...nothing but the the work of a bleeding-heart pinko commie treehugger who doesn’t have enough sense to know how dumb he sounds.” [response]

— An anonymous Republican

...the very worst of modern conservatism ... regressive and willfully ignorant, playing to banjo-plucking, backwater rednecks and schilling for [his] fascist corporate overlords.” [response]

— An anonymous Democrat

We welcome you to read more below or share your own criticism.

General criticism of Tales from 2040

Corporations should have even more power? Are you insane?

...big business already owns our government and controls basically every aspect of our lives .... You think corporations should have even more power? Are you insane?

— Anonymous reviewer

It is true that corporations have unprecedented power, which continues to grow and shows no signs of stopping. However, I am not arguing that this should or should not be happening, but rather just stating the fact that it is happening and illustrating some ways that power could be used to improve the world.

Essentially, I am taking the position that how much the government can do is becoming increasingly limited, and that we should look for other ways to solve our problems that are compatible with the inevitable realities of growing corporate power.

For people like yourself who feel that corporations should not have as much power, an alternate title for the book could be Making Lemonade.

P.S. Speaking of alternate titles, I briefly considered releasing two different versions of the book with the only difference being the subtitles, one geared toward people who were pro-capitalism, the other for the anti-capitalism crowd. (The two subtitles were something like How Capitalism Finally Stopped Being Evil and How Capitalism Kept Solving the World’s Problems.)

Charitable capitalism is not a new idea.

First I want to say that I appreciate what you are trying to do and I think you have a good heart, and that your book has a lot of great stuff in it. However, you are in desperate need of a lesson in history and current events, because what you call ‘charitable capitalism’ is not a new idea.
“Everyone who comes up with a good idea thinks they’re the first one to think it, but before you make a jackass of yourself claiming you have made some big discovery, you need to look at the thousands (maybe millions) of people who not only already have thought of the same thing (OMG! We should combine business and charity! I’m a genius!! How has no one thought of this before??) and are actually doing it and have been for a long time.
“Pick up a newspaper, read a magazine, watch a TED talk... you’d have to be living under a rock to not read about this kind of thing every day ... Yoplait donates a dime for every lid you send in... how is that not charitable capitalism?
“Warren Buffett, Bill Gates, Steve Case, Sean Parker... far too many to even list. There is a large community of entrepreneurs who are already mixing plenty of charity in with their capitalism ... Mark Zuckerberg already donated $100 million to schools, so he really doesn’t need you to teach him how to be charitable.

— electrodz

Thank you for your frank criticism. You are not alone in your opinion, as I have received several similar messages that mention a company’s charitable program, although your e-mail had the best variety of examples to address.

My initial response is to ask you to read the introduction to Tales from 2040 Vol. I as well as the afterword to Tale #003, as I address several of your points specifically there.

That said, what I call "charitable capitalism" requires a company to make doing good a core part of its business.

Since you listed several specific examples, I think it would be useful for me to start by explaining why each of those is different from charitable capitalism.

  • Yoplait’s donation program
    What this is: Cause marketing
    Like almost all cause marketing, this is not charitable capitalism since the good Yoplait is doing is unrelated to and disconnected from its business. The company could switch to a completely different cause or end the program altogether without changing the way it does business. (Furthermore, although this is not a criticism of Yoplait’s campaign, as detailed in the afterword of Tale #003, cause marketing often makes very little impact and can actually harm the causes it is supposed to help.)
  • Mark Zuckerberg donating to schools
    What this is: A capitalist being charitable
    While wealthy capitalists donating their money is commendable, again there is practically no connection between capitalism and charity here. Rather, this was pure charity: Zuckerberg made money through Facebook and gave it to schools. If Facebook had instead, say, developed some new features that helped teachers create and share lesson plans or conduct online classes, that would have been an example of charitable capitalism.
  • The efforts of Warren Buffett, Bill Gates, Steve Case, Sean Parker
    What this is: Entrepreneurial philanthropy
    This goes by many names, and involves capitalists investing in or starting new charities and running them more like a business. Once again, this is commendable, but still very different from charitable capitalism. If anything, it is the flipside — capitalistic charity, if you will. Simply put, entrepreneurial philanthropy involves injecting some of best principles of business into a charity, whereas charitable capitalism involves injecting some of best principles of charity into a business.

This last practice, entrepreneurial philanthropy, is likely what you are reading about most often, as it is an exciting trend. It is true that many charities could do even more good if they were run more like a business. Some causes can simply never be profitable, but for those that can, it’s a wonderful way to make an effort sustainable. However, entrepreneurial philanthropy nevertheless is, at its heart, still charity, whereas charitable capitalism is, at its heart, capitalism.

For more on this topic, you may want to read: Who the [expletive] are you to criticize Bill Gates?"

Ultimately, although none of your examples match my definition of charitable capitalism, your main point is correct in that, like most ideas, charitable capitalism is not a brand new concept. However, while it may not be completely new or unique, it is almost absent from our culture. By promoting this definition of charitable capitalism, I am advocating for powerful companies to analyze their strengths, determine how they could be used to help society, then figure out how to do so profitably, and there is very little evidence of this occurring now. If charitable capitalism were to become less of a foreign concept, then we, as a society, could come to expect powerful corporations to do good, rather than harboring the very low expectations we have of them today.

Who the [expletive] are you to criticize Bill Gates?

Who the [expletive] are you to criticize Bill Gates? Have you ever gotten rid of a disease? (I don’t mean gotten over a cold, I mean ridding an entire country of a serious disease.) No? I didn’t think so. Oh wait, was that you who made billions of dollars and then gave it all to charity? No, wait, that was Bill Gates too. Why don’t you come back and try again when you’ve done something yourself, Apple fanboy.

— M. Johansen

I feel that I was clear in the introduction about my respect toward Gates and my comparative insignificance, but in case you skimmed over it, I wrote:

Gates did not have to leave Microsoft to do good. While his decision to do so was admirable, could he have done even more good if he had stayed?

For a moment, please forgive my audacity at questioning the decisions of a man who is widely regarded as the greatest philanthropist in history, who has given away three times more money than anyone else, whose efforts have helped eradicate polio in India, save millions of lives, and inspire over 80 other superwealthy Americans to donate most of their fortunes, and who has earned more money and done more good in a week than I will in my entire life.

But as a consultant and a perfectionist, I cannot look at anything, no matter how great it is, without thinking about ways in which it could be improved. And solving the problems the world faces today requires us to think bigger than anything that has ever been done before. Besides, if the man who gave the most could have given more, then who among us couldn’t stand to improve as well?

I chose Gates as an example precisely because he has done so much, and yet I believe he could have done more.

In general, though, many entrepreneurial philanthropists limit their effectiveness by taking on tasks that are far outside their realms of expertise, and their charitable efforts rarely work out as well as their capitalistic endeavors.

I’m not arguing that successful capitalists should stop trying to do good, but rather that they could do even more good by sticking to their strengths. I am respectfully suggesting that before they invest their time and energy in a new venture they known little about, they should look first at how they could better use the amazing skills and resources they already have at their fingertips.

That Gates has proven to be a capable philanthropist is an understatement, but he is also an exception to almost every rule. Most other capitalists are not as versatile, and are far better at business than charity. Most also view doing good as something to do later and are not willing to quit their jobs to pursue philanthropy, and I don’t think they should. I am arguing that the best time for them to do good is right now, while they are at the peak of their careers and have the most power.

Instead of keeping capitalism and charity separate and treating charity as a side project, successful capitalists could be more effective by making doing good a normal part of what they are best at: doing business.

A book isn’t going to cure AIDS.

Talk is cheap, and talk is basically all this book is... Look, a book isn’t going to cure AIDS.

— AC_Slaytr

You are correct, and I don’t expect this book to cure AIDS. (Technically, in the book, AIDS is not cured, only the spread of it is slowed, but I don’t expect the book to accomplish this, either.)

The goal of these books is not to reform elections, nor to beat AIDS, nor to convince millions of people to start volunteering — all goals far beyond the scope of most books, let alone those by first-time not-even-really authors.

No, the immediate goal of these books is simply to get other people to write more books similar to them. The ultimate goal of this project is to shift societal norms (which is something books can accomplish).

Specifically, the goal is to make it normal to expect corporations to do good, rather than the current norm, which is to expect them only to make a profit at all costs. If this happens, then I believe we will witness corporations perform some truly amazing feats; however, it will be the people who lead and work for those corporations doing the good, not me or any other writer.

Criticism of Tale #001 (Apple, Tea Party, Occupy)

Republicans will never get along with Democrats.

...the idea that we’re all just going to come together is naïve... Republicans will never get along with Democrats.

— Nina Shaw

While I don’t think the book makes the case that everyone is going to magically get along, I have received similar feedback from multiple sources, so I’ll address it.

Much of the animosity between liberals and conservatives is fabricated to make good television. In reality, people are indeed capable of having civilized conversations with each other and can find common ground even with those who disagree with them on certain topics.

Furthermore, in the absence of serious independent ideas in American politics, both major parties have become complacent, relying on hatred for the opposition rather than the quality of their policies to gain support. If a truly independent force were to emerge, people would realize just how similar the Democratic and Republican parties have become, and we would probably see both parties cooperating against a common "enemy" at times.

For more on this topic, you may want to read: You are a [bleeding-heart pinko liberal / fascist conservative].

...seems like wishful thinking from another Apple fanboy.

...the basic ideas (patriot duty, the Public Record, GoDo, etc.) are great, but what makes no sense at all is why you wrote this about Apple instead of another company like Microsoft... or any other company. You said it yourself that Apple hasn’t ever done anything unselfish. What makes you think they’ ever change? What you wrote seems like wishful thinking from another Apple fanboy.


Several people have sent similar messages, and more than one has used that exact phrase. (See Who the [expletive] are you to criticize Bill Gates.) My immediate reaction is to say that this is a story about Apple in the future, not Apple in the past, and that Tim Cook is not Steve Jobs. However, enough readers have expressed similar opinions that I felt I should explain my position in more detail, so here is my response to everyone who thinks I wrote this as a love letter to Apple:

How Tim Cook Made Me Think Different about Apple

Whenever a critic of How Apple Helped the Tea Party and Occupy Movements Fix Politics calls me an Apple fanboy, I cannot help but chuckle. Yes, the book casts the company in a positive light, but I am not exactly one of the Apple faithful.

You see, when creating this story, the role of the tablet maker came down to Apple and Amazon. In order to achieve their goals, these stories have to be hyper-realistic and believable, and it was far easier to visualize people getting excited over an iPad than a Kindle. However, it was virtually impossible to imagine Steve Jobs initiating a charitable program such as this one, so I based the book around Amazon. (In order to make this remotely plausible, I had to create the Kindle Blaze and Kindle Inferno, fictional successors to the Kindle Fire that were more like the iPad.) When I finished the first draft of the book in 2009, the title was How the Kindle Beat the iPad, and it was a success story about Jeff Bezos, not Tim Cook.

In 2011, however, Cook began a company-wide charitable giving program a mere two weeks after becoming CEO of Apple. This piqued my interest, and the more I learned about him, the more it became clear that Cook is different. Actually, he is not just different; he is better — and not just better than his predecessor — but Cook seems like a better leader and a better person than most other CEOs out there, and I soon scrapped much of the book and began rewriting it about him. (Nothing against Jeff Bezos, who is amazing in his own right and is the subject of an upcoming Tales from 2040 book, but Cook and Apple seemed like a better fit for this story.)

Writing fiction about the present and near future is risky, and I tense up a little every time I see a new headline about one of the many famous people I have included in these books, hoping that they haven’t done something that makes the brighter future in the story less believable. However, everything I’ve learned about Cook since then has reaffirmed my decision to rewrite the story around him.

When users complained about the Maps app, Cook apologized publicly and suggested using products from Apple’s fiercest competitors while they worked on fixing it. How many other CEOs would do that?

When Cook testified to Congress about Apple’s financial practices, he dominated the room while politely educating senators about America’s tax code and why it needed reform. Yet he didn’t gloat; he instead left a gracious and confident victor. How many other CEOs would (or even could) do that?

Most recently Cook changed his stock option plan so that his bonuses are tied to Apple’s performance. He gets nothing extra if Apple does well, but he gets heavily penalized if it does poorly. This was all his idea and was done at his request – over objections from the Board. He risked hundreds of millions of dollars that were guaranteed to be his in order to set an example for how CEO compensation should work. I ask again: How many other CEOs would do that?

So while I do not fit the standard definition of Apple fanboy, I am definitely a fan of Tim Cook. Our future would already be a lot brighter if more CEOs were like him.

Criticism of Tale #002 (Lady Gaga)

Lady Gaga is not a corporation

...I hate to break it to you, but people are not corporations, my friend. Lady Gaga is not a corporation.

— Irwin Wyatt

I would argue that Stefani Joanne Angelina Germanotta is a person, but Lady Gaga is a brand, a business, and ultimately, the driving force behind a corporation, and hers is more powerful than most that are ten times the size. I did not write a book about how Germanotta could be more charitable in her personal life, but rather how the business of Lady Gaga could be even more charitable than it already is.

Furthermore, I’d like to address the infamous quote by Mitt Romney you referenced.

In that quote, when taken in its full context, Romney made a valid, albeit narrow point about how the money that corporations earn does not just disappear, but rather ultimately goes to people.

However, that sound bite has been often taken out of context to discuss another issue, which is expanding corporate personhood, or the current trend of corporations being treated more like people in the eyes of the law. (Most notably, through the Citizens United landmark decision.)

On this point, I would argue that if corporations are to be treated more like people, then we must demand that they act more like people.

Corporations are indeed made of people, but people do not have an inhumanly single-minded devotion to maximizing profit regardless of the consequences. They care what happens to other people, they have personal integrity, they have wants and needs — the most important in this case being the desire (and compulsion) to do good. Those who want corporations to gain the rights of citizens would do well to make sure corporations act like citizens, and moreover, like good citizens.

God would thank me if I put a bullet in your head

Few issues are as polarizing as abortion, and so far I have received more hate mail related to this topic than all others combined, from people on one side calling me a religious nutjob all the way to others saying things like it would be God’s work to strike down all baby killers and all who would defend them. (And that was just from one of the first hundred people to read the book.)

To everyone who has sent similar messages: I have a hard time taking your criticism seriously, because it seems doubtful that you read what I wrote.

In this book, I thoroughly critiqued both major modern sex education approaches: Safe Sex and Abstinence-Only. However, such heated comments make it seem like you read to the point where I point out flaws in the approach you support, and this made you so angry that you got defensive and didn’t notice that I performed an in-depth analysis of both approaches and discussed the strengths and weaknesses of each in detail. This balance makes it difficult to see how someone who read that entire section could come away with the idea that I am either a religious zealot or a baby killer.

So, if you sent an angry comment regarding abortion, I invite you to re-read this section of the book and see if you still think it is as one-sided as you previously thought. If you have genuine criticism of my work, I cannot express how much I would love to hear it. This is a complex issue and I am certain there are many angles I have not considered.

For more on this topic, you may want to read: You are a [bleeding-heart pinko liberal / fascist conservative] and Are you pro-life or pro-choice?

Criticism of Tale #003 (Facebook)

This would never work.

...your entire premise is built upon the idea of Facebook offering credit card processing for free, and this would never work. In what alternate universe do you think they could just eat those costs and not go bankrupt?

— Matt S.

I recognize that the economics of this idea seem far-fetched to some, but please read the endnotes and you will see that some companies are actually already doing this. For example, LevelUp offers transaction processing with no interchange fees for businesses that participate in their advertising and loyalty programs.

You can’t seriously be attacking breast cancer awareness.

As a professional web developer, I was happily reading what I thought was just an interesting story about Facebook. Then all of a sudden, out of the blue you start saying all sorts of horrible things about cancer awareness. I had to re-read it a few times before I could even believe what I was reading. You can’t seriously be attacking breast cancer awareness. Really? What you wrote sickened me. My mother and my sister are both breast cancer survivors. Without mammograms they would not still be alive today. My father died of prostate cancer, and every November I grow a moustache for Movember in his honor. Tons of people ask about it and every time it gives me a chance to help someone else avoid the same situation. How can cancer awareness be a bad thing? You can’t really believe this, can you? It seems like this is just a way to say something provocative to sell your book, in which case, shame on you. If you actually believe what you said, then I feel sorry for your ignorance. As awful as it sounds, I hope you feel the same pain someday so you can understand just how bad it hurts.

— H. Hess

I am sorry to have upset you regarding such a painful topic, but no, this was not a cheap tactic to gain publicity, and I wholeheartedly stand behind everything I wrote.

To reiterate what I wrote in the book, I do not think awareness programs are categorically bad, but rather that there are glaring problems with many of them that make them ineffective, and, in many cases, counterproductive.

For example, many breast cancer awareness programs leave people with the idea that mammograms are a panacea, when in reality, they are nothing of the sort. You credit mammograms with saving the lives of both your mother and your sister, yet research would suggest that the chance that this is actually true for both borders on the chances of being struck by lightning. (In almost all cases, screening results in either detection that has no effect on mortality or overdiagnosis.)

Many awareness programs ask too little of people, giving them a false sense of satisfaction that they have done something to promote a cause, which, in turn, can lower the likelihood that they will do something more effective. (Just promoting mammograms, for example, but not getting one themselves, or just getting mammograms instead of making lifestyle changes that could more substantially reduce the chances of all forms of cancer.) It is commendable that you do indeed spread awareness through your participation in Movember, but there are also plenty of people who just grow a moustache as a form of conspicuous participation and leave it at that.

Overall, some awareness campaigns (breast cancer in particular) are counterproductive due to their overwhelming success at getting publicity, as people have only a finite attention span for health concerns, and these campaigns take up a disproportionate amount of that attention when other concerns (like obesity and heart disease) are both more common and controllable, which is the basic reasoning behind transforming Breast Cancer Awareness Month into Women’s Health Month.

Again, my intention was not to upset you, but I believe that if you re-read this section, I think you will see that all of these points were expressed fairly clearly.

Criticism of the author

You are a [bleeding-heart pinko liberal / fascist conservative]

One Republican who read this book called me a "bleeding-heart pinko commie treehugger," while one Democrat called me "regressive and willfully ignorant, playing to banjo-plucking, backwater rednecks and schilling for [my] fascist corporate overlords."

While it was not my intent to anger anyone with these books, when discussing hot-button issues, it is inevitable that some people will be upset. However, the fact that extremists on both sides can read the same words and come away upset for opposite reasons leads me to believe I have landed somewhere in the middle.

Personally, I agree with the Democrats on a few issues, and I agree with the Republicans on a few issues, but in general, I tend to disagree with both of them. I believe that most red state / blue state arguments give us the illusion of choice between two bad options that are at best the product of uncreative thinking, and at worst, corrupt politics.

As much as possible, while writing I tried to ignore my own beliefs about what "should" happen and instead focus on what "would" happen, that is, what was most likely to happen in a theoretical situation, taking into account a broad spectrum of viewpoints, particularly those that are the most popular among Americans. As a result, these books are actually full of ideas that conflict with my own values, but that is the essence of compromise, as the possibility of a net positive effect on society is worth it.

For more on this topic, you may want to read: God would thank me if I put a bullet in your head and Are you pro-life or pro-choice?

You are a [expletive] terrible writer if it took you seven years...

You are a [expletive] terrible writer if it took you seven years to write three short books. Fiction does not take that [expletive] long. I could have written any of your ‘tales’ in a month
“If you still don’t believe me, check out NaNoWriMo. Every November thousands of people write 50,000+ word novels in 30 days.

— Anonymous

I readily admit that I am not the best writer around, and if this were straight fiction, these books probably would have each still taken me at least two or three months to write. However, they are not just fiction. I did not just use my imagination to tell a story, but rather, nearly every sentence is the product of research. (Not that good fiction writers don’t do research, but this is an entirely different writing process than writing the novels you mention.)

Most of the two-plus years spent creating each book was not spent writing, but rather performing research and developing the underlying idea for a new, plausible approach to a difficult social problem. The fictional story was just the delivery vehicle.

(For more on this, read Why did it take you so long to write each book?)

That said, I wholeheartedly believe that there are many people who could have done a much better job of researching and writing these books, and I hope to find some of them and work with them to produce better books in the future.

Why didn’t you make the stories more interesting?

I enjoyed reading your book, but there are literally hundreds of places where you could have thrown in a twist or made the plot more exciting. These seemed obvious to me and I’m not even a great writer. Why didn’t you make the stories more interesting?

— ggsellars

There are two main reasons the books are not more interesting.

The first reason is simple: I am not a great writer either.

The second reason is more complex, but it boils down to the fact that making the stories accurate and plausible took precedence over making them interesting.

If these were just stories, they could have been executed as science-fiction and would have been far more interesting to most readers.

But these Tales from 2040 are not just stories. These are business plans and social theories supported by mountains of scientific research, presented in a format more palatable than a dissertation, in the hope that enough people might read them for the the ideas to spread throughout our society.

These books were not written for entertainment, but rather to bring about change. What was always more important than making the story interesting was ensuring that the underlying ideas were sound and plausible. Unfortunately for the reader, sound and plausible don’t exactly scream out "drama and intrigue." This also meant placing heavy limitations on what could happen in a story. For example, every major new idea in the books are possible with technology that has been around for a while. Only a few minor details that do not impact the story even hint at new technology. (For more on this, read Why did it take you so long to write each book?)

Even with those restrictions, though, to reiterate the first reason, a better writer could have made the stories more interesting. If all goes according to plan, future Tales from 2040 will be written by better writers and will be more entertaining to read.

You just wrote these books to launch your career as an author.

No, I did not. I do not enjoy writing and I do not think of myself as an author. In fact, I cringe at using the term "author" and I only use it since no other word would make sense. I plan to continue this work, but only as a consultant in a larger think tank: the 2040 Network. Through writing the first three books, I hope to raise the funds to hire real authors to write future tales, as they will be able to deliver a better end result, and do so faster than I ever could.

Besides, if I were trying to start a career as an author, I would not have released all three books at the same time, and I especially would have never given them away for free. A crucial part of building a reputation as an author is landing on some kind of bestseller list (and you can just buy your way onto even the best of them), yet since these books are being given away, they could never qualify even if they are widely read.

For more, see: A book isn’t going to cure AIDS.

Criticism of 2040 Vision

‘20/40 Vision’ is a stupid name.

This is a nice book, but ‘20/40 Vision’ is a stupid name. It makes it sound like your vision needs to be checked.

— Anonymous

To clarify, it’s 2040, not 20/40, but the play on words was intentional, as when trying to squint at the future, even a theoretical alternate future, everyone’s vision is imperfect and, at best, at least a little fuzzy.

The name was also a bit of an inside joke, as I have a degenerative eye disease that is causing me to rapidly lose my eyesight.

Note: Quotes are excerpts and have been edited for spelling, grammar, punctuation, and profanity.