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My uncle and my mother have a long-standing (and enormously frustrating) argument which is useful to revisit because it reflects a circle which the rest of the nation is trapped in. My uncle always says “The government is corrupt and wishes to control the market in unfair ways! We need to diminish the role of government so that people are free to pursue business opportunities and live a life of super-awesome freedom!” My mother says, “business concerns subaltern the government in ways which individuals are ill-equipped to understand or to counter.”  Then there is eristic back-and-forth about the market versus the state. Sometimes this is followed by interesting talk of K-Street lobbyists, environmental regulations, defense contracts, monopolies, and what have you. However, in the current political age it is more usually devolves completely (indeed, I am not even sure they are talking to each other in the era of Trump).

The argument frustrates me because I am not sure it should be an argument.  My uncle is narrowly right: the government is indeed unresponsive to obvious and pressing societal needs…but only because it has been captured by special moneyed interests with deeeeeeeeeeeeeep pockets.  The forces of monopoly and market capture are equipped with an infinite ocean of dark money, a bunch of anonymous Caimen Island LLCs (or is it supposed to be Cayman?), and armies of Ivy League lobbyists & attorneys.  They can easily spend all day, every day writing complicated legislation and explaining it to their favorite legislators (who also take campaign money and aid from the same anonymous backers).

I suppose another way to say this is: I agree with my mother. The government has been subject to regulatory capture at just about every level. Small businesses or individuals look to it for succor against the depredations or excesses of big business. Yet when the regulations come out, they are revealed to favor large corporations or influential insiders. This is often accomplished with rules which sound outwardly appealing but are actually fiendishly designed to destroy small competitors or diminish the common good.

I can already feel some of the audience getting bored or frustrated with this abstruse language so let me provide a couple of examples.  Back when I was a toymaker (circa 2007), the world’s largest toy companies were making unsafe toys in China.  Mattel and Learning Curve were particularly at fault.  These giants pressured their Chinese suppliers to make toys ever more cheaply and then turned a blind eye as to how this was accomplished (with lots of lead paint, as it turns out).  When the big companies were caught selling lead toys, my business partner and I thought the scandal would help smaller companies like us.

How wrong we were! The large toy companies blamed the Chinese manufacturers (who were doing what they were told to do) and then came forward with their own proposed consumer protection legislation.  Not only did the new rules mandate that each factory-run of toys would be extensively tested for lead and other hazardous materials, but the legislation also immediately phased out certain plasticizing chemicals.  This “industry-supported” legislation became the backbone of the consumer product safety act of 2008 and it was ruinous to small companies.   Fully testing a factory-run of toys cost about $15,000.00.  For Mattel a factory run is millions of units and $15k was negligible.  For small companies, a factory run was much smaller and $15k was most of the profit margin.  Additionally, the legislation allowed no time to sell through existing toys made with the old plasticizing compound.  The big companies knew the legislation was coming (having written it) and they used a different (although equally problematic) chemical.  Small companies were prohibited from selling their products.  Child safety advocates were delighted with the new rules.  The big toy companies used a scandal they created through unsafe acts to drive small companies under and to claim the (undeserved) moral high ground.

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My mother worked for the Department of Defense doing environmental clean-up and restoration and she saw different sorts of tactics.   The DOD used to have vast tracts of land under its control.  Often this was desirable land.

Real estate developers (or their dupes) would show up and say “The Defense Department is polluting such-and-such beautiful coastal rain forest!  They need to clean it up at full taxpayer expense!” As soon as this was done (at enormous cost), the base would be decommissioned.  The land would be turned over to cronies and crooked developers who would cut down the forest and sell the timber.  Then they would build shoddy (yet expensive) subdivisions and a tacky resort.  There would thereafter be no rainforest, polluted or otherwise.

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Vieques Island Resort, Puerto Rico

These private sector tricks can be understood and explained, but it takes time, resources and clever people.  Additionally the monopolists and insiders are running their own splashy PR campaigns which are perfectly tailored to appeal to voters and non-specialists who don’t necessarily have the time, bandwidth, or inclination to understand all of the complicated details of what is going on.

The current presidential administration is such a naked smash-and-grab by private interests that some of these tactics aren’t even necessary anymore. Yet regulatory capture is always out there–it is a form of corruption which we all need to guard against.  I suppose what frustrates me about my uncle’s argument is that it rewards the real malefactors (the vested interests) by blaming the government.  The government should represent all of us, but it is made into a sad puppet by clever oligarchs.  They are the true malefactors!

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Thus far, there are four great classics of Chinese literature (or possibly 5 if you count the erotic masterpiece “The Plum in the Golden Vase”).  Three of the four were written in the Ming dynasty.  Of these three, Ferrebeekeeper has already talked about “The Journey to the West.”  I have not yet read “The Romance of the Three Kingdoms” which concerns the brutal nature of statecraft and the ghastly moral equivalence involved in controlling other people (maybe I don’t want to read that one).

This leaves us with “The Outlaws of the Marsh,” the tale of a group of Song dynasty heroes who are marginalized, framed, abused, or exiled by corrupt court officials.  These convicts, bandits, rogues, and dark sorcerers join together in an inaccessible wilderness in Shandong and form a “chivalrous” brotherhood (although three of the outlaws are warrior women and witches).  The bandit brotherhood fights off increasingly violent attempts by the state to subdue them while trying to deal with the anomie of the times and the vexatious problem of which outlaw will lead them.

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There is a larger frame story to “Outlaws of the Marsh.”  Since it is the first of 100 chapters I will spoil the book somewhat by relating it to you:

Plague is ravaging the capital and the emperor sends out Marshal Hong, a weak and corrupt court official, to find “the Divine Teacher” a great immortal magician who can stop the plague.  At a local abbey, the chief monk tells Hong that, in order to find “the Divine Teacher”, he (Hong) must ride to the top of a foreboding mountain.

Hong precedes only a short way before he is scared by a white tiger and by a poisonous snake.  He weakly decides to abort his mission when…supernatural events fully reveal the nature of his corruption (and the Divine Teacher intervenes with godlike insouciance).

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In a black mood, marshal Hong rides back to the monastery and starts to torment the monks with edicts and highhanded behavior…which leads him to find that a group of demons have been imprisoned under a tortoise with a great stone on its back.  With his trademark blend of bungling and arrogance, Hong destroys the magical prison to reveal a vast evil black pit a hundred thousand feet deep.  Out of this pit leaps a roiling black cloud of spirits which tear the roof off of the monastery and fly into near space above China before breaking into one hundred and eight glowing stars which fall throughout the land.

Marshal Hong orders his flunkies to silence concerning this misadventure and rides back to the capital where he lies to the Emperor.  Thus we are introduced to the thirty six heavenly spirits and the seventy-two earthly fiends (who are the outlaws of the marsh).  It is one of the best lead-ins ever.  A perfect beginning to this huge novel which is the father of China’s rollicking fung-fu tradition.

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The book also gave us some of the most indelible characters of martial literature: Wu Song, Lu Zhishen (the flower monk!), the cunning Wu Yong,  Black Whirlwind, and my favorite, “Panther Head” Lin Chong.  Each character has a different personality..and a different lethal weapon. They are all matchless warrior trapped in nightmarish circumstances.  There is no way out…only a way forward by means of red slaughter…

Speaking of which, Outlaws of the Marsh is a violent book.  In fact it is so exceedingly violent that it would probably make George R. R. Martin fall down and start throwing up. However, it is also a funny book…and, like all Chinese literature, it is heartbreakingly sad.  Even though the novel is set in the fictionalized Song Dynasty, it somehow describes the corruption endemic to JiaJing-era China, the corrupt Late-Ming era when it was penned by an anonymous author (probably Shi Nai’an, but nobody truly knows for sure).

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I am also sad…I have not described what is so magical and dark and beautiful about this amazing epic tale of corruption, bravery, and friendship (and death).  I guess there is only one way to find out for yourself… Coincidentally the translation by Sidney Shapiro was excellent.

Ximen Bao was an engineer and a rationalist who lived during the warring states period in China.  He served as a magistrate for the Marquis Wen, who ruled the territory of Wei from 445 BC-396 BC.  During that time, the province of Ye (in what is now Hebei) began to decline and falter.  The Marquis sent Ximen Bao to find out what was wrong.

China 400 BCE: The Warring States (Thomas Lessman–Source Website http://www.WorldHistoryMaps.info)

Ximen Bao visited the main town of Ye on the river Zhang.  He was dismayed to find the fertile countryside depopulated.  Whole families were fleeing productive farms and leaving the rich land fallow.  The peasants feared the capricious god of the river, who could cause flooding and death (or alternately draught and starvation), but they feared the crushing taxes imposed upon them by the regional governor even more.  Most of all, they feared a local witch who selected a maidens from the area as a “brides” for the river.  Chosen girls were dressed in finery and tightly bound to sumptuously decorated floating platforms–which were then sunk.  These human sacrifice extravaganzas were the purported cause of the high taxes as well.  The governor levied annual taxes for the ceremony and then kept a majority of the proceeds for himself and his cronies.  People who complained discovered that their daughters were chosen as brides.

Upon finding this out, Ximen Bao arrived at one of the marriage “celebrations” with a troop of Wei soldiers.  As the ceremony started, he proclaimed the girl unworthy of the river god.  He commanded the witch to go down to the river bed and ask the river god whether the previous brides had been satisfactory.  When she began to equivocate, the soldiers threw her into the river (where she quickly sank beneath the current).  When the witch didn’t return, Ximen asked the governor’s cronies to see what was taking her so long.  The soldiers then threw them in the river to drown as well.

Ximen Bao Sends the Witch to Visit the River God

Ximen Bao sarcastically suggested that the witch and the officials were having lunch with the river god.  He was about to send the regional governor to fetch them, when the governor fell to his knees and begged forgiveness for the scheme. Ximen Bao stripped the governor of position and holdings (and then probably tortured him to death–as was customary at the time).  He used the proscribed wealth to build a series of dams and irrigation canals to bring the unruly river under control.   Ximen Bao is still revered for being the first Chinese official to tame a river by means of civil engineering, cunning administration, and, above all, the ability to see that religion was a con trick.

In China, famous generals, courtiers, and scholars have a tendency to undergo apotheosis: their lives and deeds become integrated into religion and folklore as they gradually come to be venerated as gods and immortals (in the way Yuchi Jingde became a door god).   Today Ximen Bao is venerated in China not as a supernatural being but rather as something much more rare and useful–an honest and clear-headed official.

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