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Happy Fourth of July!  The United States of America turns 242 years old this year (2018).  People always talk about how new our nation is, but 242 is pretty venerable by any reasonable standard.  When the founding fathers declared independence, France was under the Ancien Régime, China was ruled by the sixth emperor of the Qing Dynasty, and the Ottoman Sultanate was a great world power.  Russia was expanding under the enlightened reign of…Catherine the Great!  The nascent United States had the idealistic strength of purpose to break from the forms of monarchy and autocracy which held sway around the world and to revisit the ancient, dangerous ideal of democracy–rule by the people for the people (although, admittedly, it was a pretty limited and flawed democracy in those early days…and maybe in these days too).  Democracies have always turned upon themselves and blown apart, so the founders were brave/brash to mint a new one in the era of absolutism, but it succeeded beyond their wildest dreams (except maybe for Alexander Hamilton…that guy was a maniac).

I love my country for its dangerous democracy and vibrant idealism, although weighing everyone’s opinions and forging them into a consensus can sometimes be a slow and painful process.   I also love America’s enlightened rule of law, its technological savvy, and, above all, its diverse population of people from all sorts of different backgrounds united by shared ideals.  Lately though, we have reached a sort of crossroads where the population is fundamentally at odds over two different divergent views of America’s strength, ideals, and purpose.  For the present, we are the Divided States of America: a recherche red nation of obedience, hierarchy, bravery, loyalty, & honor; and a libertine blue nation of shifting identities and ideas, ceaseless change, and unnerving new possibilities. Until one nation gains political ascendancy so overwhelming that the other side acknowledges it, the whole nation stumbles along deadlocked, incapacitated, and unable to adapt to a world where our adversaries and competitors are refining seductive new forms of autocracy (and goodness knows what else).

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After World War II, the world lay in shattered ruins.  The United States was at an apogee of power, victory and success.  Yet America rebuilt our adversaries in the belief that prosperous powerful, happy nations would be better allies and would become amazing friends.  We chose to remake the world not only with our vast power (not that we have been altogether reticent about wielding that double-edged sword) but with concepts, contracts, commerce, and compassion.  Germany, Japan, and Italy are our dearest friends—esteemed equals in the great work of civilization and progress. The Pax Americana has not been a perfect success, but it has been very good to the world and very good to us.  Turning our back on the world we built (and all of the advantages we built into the system for ourselves and our point of view) is rank folly.  When we had everything and were the only super power, we failed to reach out to the former Soviet Union with the same big-hearted elan…and look where that got us.

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We have made terrible mistakes in the past and we are making a lot of new ones lately (and revisiting some of the golden oldies which have plagued us and destroyed other great nations).  Everyone talks about the “shattering of norms” (which makes me think of the drunken everyman from “Cheers” falling from his barstool and exploding into shards like peanut brittle).   Reforms are inevitable and necessary if a nation wishes to stay dynamic and powerful.  Some norms will have to be shattered so that these much-needed reforms can take place.  The dance of reaction versus progress is so much harder in the real world than it looks on the pages of the history books though, and for the first time since the Cold War ended, I am truly afraid for America’s future.  If we cannot control ourselves, our bright dreams of space colonies, next generation biotech, super AIs, and enlightened ecological conservation will vanish… so will a lot of other things we esteem and so will some very fundamental things we have always taken for granted.

I live in bluest Brooklyn, and I don’t suppose it is a mystery where my political sympathies lie.  But it wasn’t always so.  I am a West Virginian too, with a red heart and a (perhaps overweening?) sense of our special place in the world.  This is a holiday and it isn’t time for more rancor right now, but I am going to write more about politics as the elections come up.  We need to look back 242 years and forwards 242 years too (like the founders did) if we hope to get out of this serious crisis of our democracy.

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The greatest Chinese political epic begins with the lines “Nations long divided must unite; nations long united must divide.”  We are being tested by that adage and so far, we are failing the test.  Have a happy Fourth of July!  But stay ever-mindful that we have serious painful work due on our representative government. This time the heavy lifting won’t be done by heroic half-imagined people of long ago with funny clothes, muskets, fifes, paddlewheels, and telegraphs.  It is up to us…you and me and all the people we care about with all of our dumb phones, anxieties, loudmouth ideas, and hare-brained schemes. We need to respect one another and strike new compromises, or government by the people for the people will perish here and the world will have to look to South Korea, Switzerland, Belgium, and India to find its paragons of liberty.

Ceziqy3WIAMnCkF   What in the hell  is this supposed to be?

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Hey did you see this United deplaning business on the news?  If you are here on the internet, I suspect you know exactly what I am talking about, but, in case you are reading this post in the far future or found it stapled to a tree or something, here is what happened: United Airline needed some seats on a full flight in order to move their staff around.  Instead of bribing their customers to take a different plane, the airline coerced the passengers with the fine print of the ticket contract (which, as you can imagine, allows airlines to do anything they want in exchange for zooming you across the continent at 700 miles an hour). One customer was aggrieved and refused to leave his seat, so they called in militarized corporate guards (or the police? Who can tell these days?) to beat him up and drag him off the plane. The United CEO then issued a statement basically saying “We can do as we like. Our market is guaranteed.”

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As you can imagine, this has stirred up some hard feelings among the general public, but the CEO was right.  There is a cartel of four carriers which controls the majority of flights around America.  If you wish to fly, you must do so at the cartel’s terms (or else you need to buy a plane).  This consolidation has allowed the airlines to cut service, increase fares, and add a proliferation of fees. Most markets are under the thumb of a single carrier and, if you want to fly where they have suzerainty you will have to use that carrier or not fly.  Good luck getting a train or even a bus in America.

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I don’t mean to pick on the airlines: cable service provider, pharmaceutical companies, oil conglomerates, insurance companies, major banks…even toy companies all operate the same way in today’s deregulated society.  America has a monopoly problem: but today’s companies are smart enough to avoid having one entity take complete control of a market.  Business schools and the school of hard knocks have taught the heads of these companies to be slightly subtler about the way they fix prices and collude.   With their record profits, they have also bought up politicians and control the relevant legislation that goes in front of them.  Do you care about flight regulation legislation enough to lobby your congressperson?  I personally do not, but I bet United sure does!

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The bigger takeaway here is that capitalism is facing challenges of extreme success which are causing it to morph into naked oligopoly.  This in turn is stifling competition and innovation.  It is also breaking our political process. The Republican mantra that “government is the problem” and cartel companies like United or Aetna should be allowed to run everything for the benefit of a tiny number of great aristocrats does not really seem like a platform which was drafted by groundlings!  The Democrats pretend otherwise but they abandoned responsible attempts to reign in business cartels back in the 70s.  The parties have different favorites, but they are both content that the game is rigged.

It is not supposed to work this way.  In an ideal market, you could punish United and its smug multimillionaire CEO by spending three dollars more to take an airline that doesn’t beat up its passengers and drag them off the plane screaming.  In a better democracy, you could vote in a district where the winner was not already predetermined by gerrymandering.

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This sort of thing means we are going to have to pay attention. We all need to be aware of regulatory capture: an endemic species of corruption whereby giant companies write rules which look reasonable, but which actually price smaller competitors out of the marketplace.  Politicians rubber stamp these rules and claim they are looking out for the public interest (while the cartels support their subsequent careeers).  We are going to need to be more attentive and smarter, or we are all going to be doing what giant corporations and their pet politicians tell us to do.  The moment where we can act is quickly passing. We must push for effective new antitrust measures or we will all have to take our tiny expensive seat and shut up while brownshirts probe and beat us to their hearts’ content… not just when we fly but everywhere all of the time.

The Union of the Crowns of England and Scotland (Peter Paul Rubens, ca. 1632-1634, oil on canvas)

The Union of the Crowns of England and Scotland (Peter Paul Rubens, ca. 1632-1634, oil on canvas)

This strange work “The Union of the Crowns” is by the consummate painter’s painter, Peter Paul Rubens. It shows the symbolic joining of the crowns of England and Scotland, an event which occurred upon the death of Queen Elizabeth I on March 24, 1603. When Elizabeth Tudor died without an heir, the crown of England passed from her to her first cousin twice removed— James VI, King of Scots (thereafter also James I of England & Ireland). The United Kindom did not formally become one imperial kingdom until the Acts of Union of 1707, but once a single sovereign held both thrones, the way was certainly paved for the merger. This mighty canvas hangs in the banqueting hall at Whitehall and it shows James I attentively watching as Juno and Venus hold the two crowns over a regal chubby naked baby (who may be Great Britain or may be an infant Charles I–back when he still had a head).  Minerva joins the crowns together as flying putti hold the conjoined shield aloft among a suffusion of roses.

England and Scotland with Minerva and Love (Peter Paul Rubens, ca. 1632-1634, oil on canvas)

England and Scotland with Minerva and Love (Peter Paul Rubens, ca. 1632-1634, oil on canvas)

Rubens knew exactly how to pander to aristocratic tastes…and how to bang out lucrative political allegories with help from his extensive studio. There are several other slightly different versions of “The Union of the Crowns” by the master (& co.) located around England at the estates of various noblemen who stood to gain from the union. As Scotland nears a fateful electoral choice later this year, one wonders if a painter will be called upon to paint the division of the crowns by strife, nationalism, and vested interest…

Union of England & Scotland, Peter Paul Rubens, 1630, oil on panel)

Union of England & Scotland, Peter Paul Rubens, 1630, oil on panel)

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