The Bad Guy

There’s a whole class of literature that involves caricatures. Fables, fairy tales, morality plays, allegories, Westerns, superhero tales, the list goes on and on….

These are fine in their place: they simplify moral issues so that you can see what is going on. There’s generally a “good guy,” and a “bad guy,” and they duke it out and the good guy wins. Or sometimes, the good guy loses, but becomes a martyr (or a helpful spirit) that inspires and aids the next good guy in the sequel.

One of the things that always gritches me — yes, I’m verbing an adjective, deal with it — is the traditional shallowness of the bad guys. They want “absolute power” for instance: but why? If you look at Star Wars, the evil emperor wants absolute power over everything, so let’s just assume he wins and gets absolute power over everything. So now, he just sits on his throne, immortal, unchallenged, all-powerful? Does he let out an evil chuckle every now and again, just because that’s his greatest remaining joy in life, chuckling while he remembers the good old days when he had something interesting to do with his time?

Of course, any sensible person would point out that this is a sci-fi/fantasy movie, an upscale comic book plot, and I’m taking it far too seriously. I agree, of course.

But then we come to “conspiracy theories.”

A lot of people believe that these things are real. That they are an imminent threat. That we all have to “do something” to respond to the threat, though it seems that — in most cases — the only thing we need to do is “see through” their evil plot and say, “Aha, I see through your evil plot!”

There are two sniff tests I always apply to any tale of conspiracy pretending to be real.

The first is this: never ascribe to conspiracy what can be adequately explained by mass stupidity.

The second is: if there is a conspiracy, and a bunch of “bad guys” secretly pulling strings and getting mass stupidity to work for them, then there is an objective to their conspiracy, and the objective makes some kind of communicable sense — otherwise, the conspirators would not have fallen in together in the first place.

There had to be a point in time that they were having lunch at a very upscale bistro, and one of them said, “Say, you know if we decided to do this thing that we would have to keep secret, just among us, it would benefit us all….” And then the others thought about it and decided they were all in.

People don’t conspire to “do evil.” They conspire to do something else, and evil is a side-product. They’ll often even acknowledge this, calling it a “regrettable, but necessary evil.”

In short, the second sniff-test is, “Follow the money.” It isn’t always money — sometimes it’s pride, or vainglory, or ideology — but there’s always some guiding benefit.

So there’s a conspiracy theory trying to make the rounds right now about how this whole COVID-19 thing is a hoax/conspiracy. Two, actually. Trump thinks (or says he thinks, which doesn’t mean much) it’s part of a conspiracy by the Democrats to take him out of power. Others, on the web, have been saying it’s a government/media conspiracy to try to enslave common citizens.

Neither makes an ounce of sense.

If it’s a hoax to take Trump out of power, then it started in China, spread to Italy, and is now worldwide. While I could easily believe that most of the world would like to see him kicked out of the Oval Office, quarantining Northern Italy is a very strange way to go about it.

But this other one is equally strange.

Again, you have the global nature of this. You have to assume a global government/media conspiracy, which is a bit like the evil emperor of Star Wars — what is the point of a global government/media conspiracy that … asks everyone to stay home for a few weeks?

Yes, like a curfew, it’s a ham-handed way of maintaining control. But you have curfews to quell riots, uprisings, and crime waves. During a curfew, you expect — demand, even — that people go back to work during the day. There’s no benefit to the powerful to asking people to stay home instead of going to work.

Indeed, quite the opposite. Business suffers.

And then the stock market tanks. It has already wiped out all the claimed gains of the Trump presidency, and we’ll see where it goes next week. The Federal Reserve has just announced it will cut the prime interest rate to zero. Were I trading in the stock market, I’d have sell orders placed with my broker, for execution at opening bell on Monday. Because I don’t expect swift recovery. In fact, I’d not be surprised if it reaches a point where the markets are closed altogether, to prevent financial panic and meltdown. I’ll not be surprised if we see a financial panic and meltdown, anyway.

It will be worldwide. Because the hoax, if it were a hoax, is worldwide.

This benefits whom?

Certainly not a global media conglomerate, which makes most of its money from advertising bought by the companies that make their money in a global economy that has to be functioning in order for them to buy advertising. If the stock market tanks, the global media empire gets hit, too.

Certainly not government. Governments do not benefit from economic meltdowns. In fact, they often fall, and the people in power get booted out, sometimes assassinated, sometimes driven out of the country to seek asylum elsewhere.

No one is going to deliberately fake a global pandemic. That would only happen in a comic book.

The Last Billionaire

Eric puttered in the garden, idly chipping at the hard, dry earth with his hoe. Sweat ran down his back, soaking his shirt but offering no relief from the heat. The temperature was already 37, and it was still early in the day. It would be in the mid-40’s this afternoon.

“Come on, Papa,” he muttered to himself, glancing again at the steel door to the compound.

Almost as if in answer, the locks on the door disengaged with a loud, metallic clack, and the door swung inward to disgorge his father, dressed — as always — in the formal clothing of his station.

“We’ve got to go, Papa,” Eric said.

His father stepped out into the sun and heat, blinking rapidly. His back was straight, his head held high, but his jaw was tight.

Eric clenched his own jaw and suppressed a flood of anger.

The bastard probably yelled at Dad. Called him names. Maybe struck him, though I don’t see any marks or blood. Well, it doesn’t matter any more.

He let the hoe fall to the ground, and strode quickly to where the two stuffed backpacks lay half-concealed under a dying bush, one for each of them. He donned one — the heavier one — and carried the other back to his father, who stood, staring at the fallen hoe with a faint scowl on his face.

“You need to put your tools away, son,” his father said, his voice cultured and calm. Eric felt another wave of anger, mixed with shame. He hesitated, then bent and picked up the fallen hoe.

It’s not about the tools,” his father had told him once, when he was a hot-headed teen-ager and had thrown a garden tool to the ground in a rage. “Tools can be repaired or replaced. It’s about you, and how you approach the world around you. Are you going to care for the things in your charge, or are you going to neglect and abuse them?

“I’m sorry, Papa,” Eric said.

His father took a deep breath, and let it out slowly.

“I’m sorry, too, son. Leave the hoe. Walk with me.”

Eric blinked in surprise. But anxiety won out.

“Papa, we’ve got to go! They aren’t going to wait for us.”

“There’s time. Put down your pack, and walk with me to the lake. I want to sit by it for a moment.”

Eric’s clock was the sun. His father’s clock was inside-time, atomic-time, exact time. The same time as the people waiting for them. If his father said there was time, there was time.

Eric sighed, set down his father’s pack, and shrugged out of his own. His father had already started walking into the forest.

This was the fourth forest. The first — the original forest that had stood for centuries on this land — had burned and failed to grow back, because of drought and the growing heat. The second forest had been made of sterner stuff, manufactured to look like real trees, and the result had been … disturbing. They were close to real in appearance, but not quite — the branches did not bend properly in the wind, the leaves did not rustle the way they should, the bark was too regular, and they did not smell right. Though they were designed to give the illusion of life, in reality they emphasized the deadness of the forest. They had been torn down long before the project was completed.

They were replaced by the third forest, which was made up of gardens and sculpture, with climbing, heat-tolerant vines covering arbors and tall marble columns. The heat had eventually baked the heavily-irrigated gardens and withered the vines, leaving the sculpture standing desolate and alone on bare, sun-parched earth. The sculpture was removed and replaced with the fourth forest.

The artists had this time abandoned any attempt to replicate or incorporate nature. They had instead created an abstract fantasy forest of crystal, metal, and enamel. It tinkled rather than rustled in the breezes, and when the wind rose, it would stroke taut wires and openings in hollow branches, and the forest would actually sing. Lights built into the crystalline branches and leaves would flicker and create complex patterns at night. Faintly-perfumed water was pumped through the boles of the trees, and then misted into the air, cooling the shade beneath the branches.

At the center of the forest was a small lake of clear water. The beachfront was made of natural sand that dipped artful fingers into the water. Strategically-placed benches offered striking views of the lake and its surrounding crystal forest.

It had been both beautiful and pleasing, though it was sterile.

This forest had been completed five years ago, but like any man-made art exposed to the weather, it needed constant maintenance. There had been poor maintenance for the last three years, and none at all for the past year, and there were visible signs of decay. Sand had shifted, leaving bare spots that revealed metal and fabric. Enamel had faded where the sun was brightest, and chipped where wind-borne pebbles had struck. One of the trees on the far side of the lake had lost its exterior shell on one side, blown off in a windstorm, revealing rusted iron scaffolding inside. Wind-blown trash and detritus had caught in branches.

It was still beautiful.

They found a bench in the perfume-misted shade and sat. Eric waited in silence for his father to speak.

“Ramón,” Eric’s father said after a time, pensively. “My mother named me Ramón. She looked it up in a book. She said it meant ‘wise protector.’”

He fell silent.

Eric glanced at the sun’s angle, and fidgeted impatiently.

“I am staying,” Ramón said.

Eric stopped fidgeting, and stared at his father blankly.

“Papa! We have passage arranged!”

His father was silent.

“You can’t stay here! This place is dying. You will die with it!”

His father’s shoulders slumped, ever so slightly.

“Son, I am old, and spent. I will die before long, regardless of where I am. Here…. If I stay here, I may still do some good.”

“What good can you possibly do here?!” Eric cried out.

Ramón turned to fix Eric with a sharp gaze and faint smile that curled one side of his mouth.

“Good does not come of circumstances…” Ramón said.

“…it comes of choices,” Eric finished, with angry tears in his eyes. “As you’ve told me my entire life. But that is just as true whether you are here, or far from here. You can do good here, and you can do good there. Why stay? WHY?”

Ramón sighed, and turned his gaze back to the sterile lake.

“He will not notice the disappearance of another gardner. But if I leave, he will certainly notice. It will frighten him, and he will report my absence. They will hunt us both down.”

“Papa, half the staff is already gone. He has done nothing.”

Ramón smiled tightly, without mirth. “He does nothing, because he does not know.”

Eric blinked. “How… how can he not know?”

“Because I have not told him.”

Eric gaped.

“Papa, this whole place is like an abandoned house. Look at that tree over there — no one has fixed it. No one will. The last real gardens are nearly dead. Fountains have gone dry, and they still gurgle, because no one has bothered to shut off the power to the pumps. The apartments have far more dark windows at evening than lighted windows. How can he possibly not notice?”

Ramón closed his eyes and sighed, and slowly shook his head.

“He doesn’t notice, son, because he never leaves the compound, and has never noticed the staff. He does not bother to learn their faces, or know their names, or what they do, or where they live. He has people — like me — who do that for him. The working staff are as invisible to him as individual tiles in the floor, or bricks in a wall. Years ago, he would have noticed the … decay. The poor quality of service. He would have called on me to answer for it. But he is also aging, just as I am, and has other matters on his mind. He has not noticed, and I have not told him. So he has done nothing.

“If I leave, he will notice. He will report it. Contract Authority will hunt us down. They will find us. They will treat us as traitors and terrorists.”

Eric stared blankly ahead, silent tears on his face. They he scowled.

“You’ve always known this. Yet you agreed to escape to freedom with me. You helped me plan our escape. Did you ever intend to come with me? Or was it always a lie? To send me off to safety alone?”

“I have never lied to you, son.” Ramón’s voice was quiet, but suppressed fury rang in his tone, and reproach covered his face.

Fresh tears sprang to Eric’s eyes. “Then something else changed. What is going on, Papa?”

The anger and reproach on Ramón’s face blew away like dust in a hot summer wind.

“What changed, Papa?”

Ramón was silent for a long time. Eric waited.

“Elon is dead,” Ramón said at last, as though that explained anything at all. Eric merely shook his head.

“Who is Elon?”

“His friend. They were the last two of their kind. They were working on a final project together, he said the most important project he had ever attempted. He did not want disturbances. He barely wanted to eat. But Elon has been ill, and this morning, when he did not answer, I reported it. Contract Authority confirmed that Elon is dead, of natural causes associated with old age.”

“I don’t understand. So he lost a friend. We’ve all lost friends.”

“You are not thinking clearly, son. Work it out.”

Eric scowled and looked at his feet.

“I see,” he said at last. “He was distracted by his project with this friend. He would not have missed you right away. We could both have left, and would have been beyond reach before it was reported. Now, he has no friend, and no project, and he’ll be calling for you at all hours. If you aren’t there….”

Ramón smiled and nodded. “Remember in the future to think before you speak. As I’ve told you countless times.”

Eric shrugged off the rebuke.

“We should still take the chance, Papa. Contract Authority has lost a lot of men, and they are overworked controlling riots and massacres in the gated enclaves. They are stretched very thin. Why would they look for us?”

“Because of who he is,” Ramón replied. “The Contract Authority was created to serve men like him. Their charter is to track down runaway employees, not quell riots among employees who have stayed. His report of a runaway will gain their full attention. Even if the enclaves are burning.”

“But what about the people giving us passage? Can’t they protect us?”

Ramón shook his head.

“Much of the passage fee is to bribe the Authority to look the other way. If he reports us, Authority won’t honor the bribe.”

Eric began to sob openly, and he clenched and unclenched his hands as he wept. Ramón pulled Eric’s head into his shoulder and held him close. Eric clung to his father like a child.

When Eric’s weeping was done, he released his father and pushed himself away. He stared at Ramón with reddened eyes.

“Then I must stay, too. I can’t go without you.”

Ramón smiled with sudden tears in his eyes.

“No, Eric. You don’t need me any more. You are no longer a boy. You are a man, and you will thrive in your new home.”

“That’s not what I meant, Papa. I meant I can’t go, and leave you here. He is a cruel man. Things will get worse, and he will take out his rage and disappointment on you, as he has in the past. I can’t leave you to face that, all alone.”

Ramón glanced at the shiny disk on his wrist, then rubbed his face with his other hand.

“Eric, there is so much I want to tell you, but time is growing short.

“Yes, once I rose out of the lower echelons, he noticed me, and was cruel to me, and many nights, especially after a beating, I went to my bed dreaming of my hands tight around his throat. But by that time, I had you, and your mother had died, and I knew that if I showed so much as a hint of my murderous thoughts, they would tear up my contract and send me to the slums, and sell your contract on the open market. As a child. You know what that would have meant.

“So instead, I swallowed my pride, and endured. I continued to rise in rank. He came to trust me, and then to depend upon me. I grew close enough that I could have killed him. Perhaps even made it look natural. But I was always afraid I would make a mistake, and they would find me out, and execute me, and I can only guess what they would have done to you. Something unbearable.

“I endured. I adjusted staffing quotas to ensure you had work, and rations. I’ve kept you close to the compound and off the hard labor lists. I’ve structured my life so that you could live until a real opportunity came along. That time has come. You must take passage. You must go. Because you are right: this place is dying. The entire civilization is dying. If you stay, you will die with it. You will make everything I endured meaningless.

“Please, Eric. Go. Let me stay and do what I need to do, so that you can go, and be free. Please.”

Eric studied his father’s face for a long moment, then took a deep breath.

“I will go, Papa. And you will stay. And I will tell my sons, and daughters, and anyone who will listen, what you did for me.”

Ramón smiled, and the smile at last caused the unshed tears to fall and rain down his cheeks.

“Then it is time, my son,” Ramón said, and rose.

They turned and walked back through the metal forest toward the compound.

“Once I’m safely en route, will you kill him?”

Ramón walked in silence for a while.

“No,” he said at last. Eric glanced at him in surprise, and saw that his father also had a puzzled expression on his face.

“Why not?” Eric asked.

Ramón said nothing for a long moment. Then he spoke, hesitantly.

“I saw the project he and Elon were working on. They had decided to fix the climate. Just the two of them. They would put their vast financial empires together, and get the job done. They had a plan. I don’t know enough to tell you if it was a good plan, or a bad plan, or just a fantasy of old men. They spoke as if they thought it would work. But they were stuck on one, final point, something they could not get around.”

“What was that?” Eric asked.

“They could not figure out how to make it profitable.”

Eric stopped walking, his mouth open. Ramón stopped, and turned back to face his son. They stared at each other. And then Ramón’s lips twitched slightly, and they both burst out laughing uncontrollably.

The laughter at last subsided, and they quickened their pace toward the compound. Ramón’s face grew sad as they walked.

“When I understood that they could not move forward with a plan to save the Earth because it would not make them wealthier, I understood something about both of them that I had never imagined. 

“They were afraid. Their lives were consumed by that fear. They were like dogs that keep eating, not because they are hungry, but because they are afraid of becoming hungry. They eat to try to quell, not their hunger, but their fear. They eat until they are in pain, and then eat more until their stomachs burst, and they die. Their fear does not allow them to do otherwise.

“He has always had apple pie on his birthday, since he was a boy. A few years ago, his chefs could not prepare his birthday pie, because there were no apples to be found, at any price. 

“He screamed at the cooks. He had the head chef beaten. When he finally grasped that we couldn’t find apples, he ordered us to plant an apple orchard, at enormous expense, in a special climate-controlled garden with seed we acquired from a seed ark: the seeds never germinated. Then he wanted us to buy a biotech company to create new heat-resistant apple seeds — but there weren’t any such companies left, and their employees’ contracts had all been scattered to other industries.

“He is the richest, most powerful man in the world, and he can’t have apple pie on his birthday. And he can’t seem to grasp why this is the case.”

They had reached the compound door, and Eric shouldered his pack.

“I no longer hate him,” Ramón said. “I pity him. He’s caused himself far more pain than he ever caused me. And he has nothing to show for it. His last friend is dead, and all his wealth cannot buy him a final taste of apple pie. I’m the fortunate one: I have a son, who is going to make a life for himself in a place where the rain still falls.

“So no, son, I’m not going to kill him. I’m going to continue to serve him as I have for so many years, and try to make his last days more comfortable.”

They embraced. Then both wiped away their tears, and Eric turned and strode away without looking back.

Super Tuesday

I voted in the California Democratic primary yesterday. We’re in one of those remote regions where there is no actual polling place: ours is all done by mail. Somehow, when we moved, my registration didn’t move with me, and while my wife’s ballot came a week or two ago, mine didn’t come, and didn’t come, and here comes Super Tuesday. So I found the county election office (it’s in town) and went there in person to get my ballot, and I voted. I even wore the “I Voted” sticker.

I voted for Bernie.

There were a lot of factors involved, but in the end, the biggest item was the young voters.

I wrote an open letter to Nancy Pelosi some time back, in response to an old video clip in which she was dismissively grandma-‘splainin’ to a young voter that “we are capitalists” — she seemed exasperated that he didn’t seem to understand this. I pointed out in my letter that, no, “we” are not capitalists. In particular, the young man she was talking down to was clearly not a capitalistIn the end, he is going to win, for one, simple, unarguable reason: he’s going to outlive Pelosi. He’s going to outlive me. His beliefs and attitudes are going to control the future. Not ours.

Elders preserve their beliefs and attitudes by passing them on to the young, by selling them to the young, if you will. When the elders are unconvincing and the young don’t buy what they are selling, those beliefs and attitudes die out.

Our time has already passed.

If you look at the young voters, they are all in for Bernie. They have plenty of good reason to be, of course. But I also see how idealistic the young are — and remember how idealistic I was back in the day — and I think they will walk away from the election almost en masse rather than vote for someone they think is the wrong person.

Put Biden up against Trump, and the young will not vote at all. Or they will throw away their vote on a write-in candidate.

Our time has passed. It is time to let the young take the torch.

WTF Is Going On?

On Facebook, a friend of mine was asking how it was that conservatives and liberals in this country are accusing each other of hatred, dishonesty, ignorance, fanaticism, and numerous other sins of the mind and soul. We’re all quite certain we’re doing none of that, and that the other guy is absolutely guilty of all of that.

But then he turns it around on us, and we wonder if he’s a Russian troll gaslighting us, and then laughing when we start doubting ourselves.

I think there are plenty of Russian trolls out there, especially on Facebook. And I think there are plenty of people of bad intention and bad faith gaslighting us because they are small-souled people who think it’s funny.

But I find it hard to believe that so MANY people are such shmucks. I think there’s something else going on.

Here was my response to the post, which the poster liked quite a lot.

For what it’s worth:


We are, in my experience, very poor judges of ourselves, and of our own core value systems. We also tend to lie to protect ourselves, our reputations, and our power. We lie to ourselves all the time.

These personal lies tangle with the cultural lies we tell ourselves as a society.

Let’s start with the cultural lies.

Our nation no longer bears much resemblance to what we say about it. We do not have a democracy in the US, or anything like a democracy. We have a huge, but inflexible and fragile economy that is teetering perpetually on the edge of collapse, because it must grow proportionally to survive, and it can no longer grow proportionally. Our society has moved very far indeed from any kind of “free” society: nearly all of us are job-slaves, with our housing, our food, our medicines, and even our friendships and communities tied to a rationing system that is grotesquely inequitable, and — for most of the population — insufficient for our basic survival needs. The “successful” must pull up roots and move anywhere at the behest of their masters: should they refuse, they are not sold to another master, but rather, must to sell themselves to another master on the auction block. When we become too old or ill to be useful to a new master, we are sidelined, warehoused, and forgotten. We are profoundly racist, sexist, ageist, and classist.

In other words, most of the things we repeat endlessly about our nation are lies.

I think the main difference between conservatives and liberals is the nature of the lies and rationalizations they are willing to tell themselves about our nation.

Conservatives have crafted a “conservative mythology” in which this crumbling nation is beset by immigrants, lazy bums, badly-raised “millennials,” and whining left-wing socialists. If we could just get rid of all those worthless parasites, everything would be fine.

Liberals have crafted a “liberal mythology” in which this crumbling nation is beset by greedy capitalists, corrupt bribe-takers in Congress, dishonest elections, and lying right-wing fascists. If we could just get rid of all those sociopaths, everything would be fine.

Both viewpoints are lies told to protect the fundamental lie that we still live in a strong, young, vigorous, viable democracy.

I would say that both sides have drunk the toxic kool-aid. They just prefer different flavors.

That said, there are two distinctly different flavors.

Conservatives tend toward authoritarianism. That’s been borne out by many studies.

I saw a conservative comment the other day saying “Yay! Trump 2020, 2024, 2028, 2032!” and some other conservative who was shocked enough to say, “You want a dictator?” I would say that the true answer, in general, is yes. Not that most conservatives would admit to that openly (though many would), since it runs against our cultural lies about how democracy-is-best. But authoritarians crave a structure of authority, and are really just fine with a dictator. They all want a “good” dictator, of course, but that mostly means one who aligns well with the lies they tell themselves. Like a dictator who will build a wall to keep out the evil immigrants, which will solve all the problems of a crumbling society.

When we get into politics itself, there is a lot of very deep corruption, which you would expect in a crumbling republic. It’s impossible to discern true motives, because the politicians are all working with propagandists to craft a “message,” meaning a way to sweeten what is bitter. All of them. Are they really in it for the power? The money (licit and illicit)? The adulation? Are they trying to preserve the republic, or loot it as it goes down?

Surprising comments pop out of their mouths from time to time. They always claim “they misspoke.” I tend to think that for just a moment, they lost focus, and accidentally spoke their truth.

Given that most people are trying to preserve the lie of living in a viable and everlasting republic, they start off confused and get more confused by the antics of the politicians.

Then we come to Trump. All the evidence points to him being a pathological narcissist, and if that’s true, his motives are quite straightforward: it’s all about him. Adulation, power, and wealth. His behavior is consistent with that, including the stream of self-aggrandizing lies he tells.

For some reason, people are fascinated by narcissists, and are more than happy to promote them to positions of adulation, power, and wealth. Maybe it’s a survival thing: when you have a pack of starving wolves attacking your tribe, it’s not the best time to sit down and have a debate over the best way to deal with them.

Given that the republic is failing, it isn’t surprising that large numbers of people would turn to a narcissist, and particularly conservative authoritarians. We all feel the collapse. We want it to stop. We want someone to tell us what to do.

The Parties

My son wrote me an e-mail the other day. He was pointing out that Obama and Biden engaged in plenty of “quid pro quo,” and cited some references. So what’s the big deal with quid pro quo for Trump?

My son is very negative regarding the Democratic Party. I don’t actually disagree with him: the party is contemptible. I think the main difference between us is context. I view Obama — in particular — in the context of the Bush/Cheney: my expectations for Obama were very low, and he exceeded them by quite a lot. By contrast, my son was only thirteen when the Bush/Cheney was elected, and was still under twenty when the Bush/Cheney disintegrated in the mid-term election of 2006. Obama was his first president as an adult, and his expectations were very high. Obama disappointed him terribly.

But his question was a good one: what was this quid pro quo all about?

Well, it was never about quid pro quo at all. It was about separation of powers. It isn’t that Trump leaned on Ukraine. That would have been fine, had he been backed by Congress and all of the vested interests within his own executive branch. Instead, Trump went all cattle baron and hired a gunslinger — Rudy Giuilani — and a bunch of other politically-appointed thugs like Gordon Sondland and Mike Pompeo, to go rough up the Ukrainians, and he didn’t consult with the other cattle barons. Or, if you prefer, he didn’t give the other Mafia dons the respect — and the kickback — they expected.

Let’s back up. To understand the Constitutional separation of powers, you have to first understand that the Framers believed that people are assholes. They used the term “devils,” which — in the language of the eighteenth century — is considerably darker than “asshole.” So using metaphors like “cattle barons” or “Mafia dons” to describe the Washington culture is perfectly in keeping with the way they thought about matters while they were debating the Constitution.

They set up the government as a Mexican standoff, with three parties — the courts, the legislature, and the president — all pointing shotguns at each others’ heads. They did not believe that any of those three groups would behave honorably. Quite the contrary. But they did believe that they would always look out for their own self-interest.

This is the heart of the impeachment clause. It is the shotgun that Congress has pointed at the president’s head.

When Trump leaned on Ukraine, his sin was not what he did, but the fact that he went around Congress, and around all of the laws they had passed, and did it anyway — and then, when someone noticed and said something, covered it up. It was a direct subversion of the separation of powers, and it rightly caused Congress to pull the trigger.

Or rather, it caused half of Congress to pull the trigger.

One of the things that the Framers feared was the power of the political parties, and for precisely the reason that has just played out in front of us. What has happened is that the power of the political party — the winning party — is greater than the power of Congress, the executive, and the courts together.

The Republican majority in Congress is not supporting Trump because he’s the president: they are supporting him because he is a Republican. The courts, embodied by Republican favorite Chief Justice Roberts, will ratify their “trial” of the president, regardless of the level of sham it represents.

What this means is that, in practice, the structure of US government has changed at a very basic level. It is no longer a three-party Mexican standoff among courts, legislature, and executive. It is now a two-party standoff between two political parties, Republican and Democrat, both of which act to imbue the dominant party (their own) with absolute power in a no-holds-barred struggle for power.

The Bush/Cheney loaded the courts with Republican jurists, enabled by a Republican Senate, and that same Republican Senate blocked Obama from reversing that during his time: as a result, the courts, by-and-large, are now preferentially allied with the Republicans, with a full twenty-year lead. The current Republican Senate majority is fully-allied with the Republican president, and there is no imaginable crime or misdemeanor a Republican president could commit that they would not excuse. The only dissenting voice in the political system is the Democratic majority in the House — one-sixth of the elected government. They attempted to pull the impeachment trigger on the president over a clear transgression of separation of powers, and the Senate put its finger in front of the hammer. The shotgun did not fire. It will never fire while the Senate and president belong to the same party.

Note that this isn’t about “policy” or “conservative” or “liberal” political theories. This is simply a matter of raw power: who has it, and who does not. The Republicans are a disciplined group willing to do whatever it takes to take and maintain power. The Democrats are still divided, with many playing the old game of polity and negotiation and public will and “good of the nation,” which is why their primaries always look like a circus.

It doesn’t really matter who wins the 2020 election: not unless the Democrats take the presidency, and Senate, and hold the House, and spend the next eight or sixteen years reversing the de facto Republican takeover.

But that won’t really make any difference, either, because it remains the same two-party standoff, merely with a different party in power. The Democrats won’t get there unless they become as disciplined as the Republicans. And remember: they are all assholes. Or devils, if you prefer. Once they hold the power, they are not going to voluntarily go back to the Mexican standoff.

The only solution I see is to break the power of the parties. To shatter them both beyond any possible repair. We need third, and fourth, and seventh parties, and a voting system that supports that.

The Sibelius Concerto

This weekend, the Ukiah Symphony Orchestra will perform Jean Sibelius’ one and only violin concerto, with Polina Sedukh as soloist.

I fell in love with this concerto as a teen-ager.

In those dark ages, the vast array of modern musical delivery devices simply didn’t exist. The thing that all the kids had was a 45 rpm phonograph, a “record-player,” and all of us had our collection of our favorite 45 records, kept in a box where they stood vertically, to protect them from scratches. We’d carry them to our friends’ houses, listen to tunes, and swap records. We played them over and over until the sound grew grainy. Storing them vertically didn’t preserve them from dust, grit, dull steel phonograph needles, and overuse.

Later, as a teen-ager, I gave up all other Christmas presents for a couple of years in return for an audiophile’s dream: a 33 rpm changer, with a separate amplifier and headphones. That took a LOT of wheedling and whining. You would stack the much larger LP (Long Playing) albums on the spindle, and the platter would drop onto the turntable, the arm would automatically swing and drop onto the starting track, and the music would play. Then, when the album had completed, the arm would automatically move out of the way, the next album would drop onto the turntable, and the needle would again move to the starting track. You could listen to a couple of hours of music without touching anything.

The album business was well under way by then — Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band came out in 1967 — but LP albums were expensive. I didn’t have a budget for that. What I did have was a library card. And the county library had LPs — mostly classical music.

Sibelius’ violin concerto was in the bin, and I fell asleep listening to it many, many nights. I think it’s fair to say that it helped to shape, and give voice to, my soul.

I have my favorite passages, of course.

There’s a place in the first movement where the violin starts crossing strings, lightly, like a Mozart cadenza, but then it gradually turns into firestorm of shifting chords that simply can’t be contained: he gives up the string crossing and starts sawing wildly in desperate octaves, culminating in thunder from the drums and blaring horns. The raw passion of it is so like the explosive passions of a teen-ager, trying to come to terms with hormones and social pressures and parental expectations in a world that resists making any sense at all.

Then there’s a sweet, rising theme in the second movement that occurs twice, filled with yearning. The first time, it rises and falls back into the general fabric of sound, incomplete, but the second time, it rises, and rises, and rises, and then resolves into a major chord broken by a major seventh — a triumph tinged with unanswerable sadness — and just remembering it gives me chills up and down my neck, and brings tears to my eyes.

And then, the third movement, with its insistent drumbeats and the mad little tunes dancing around them. My favorite passage is the demented elven melody played entirely with harmonics, which is a violin technique where you just barely touch the string in just the right place with your little finger, and it drives the pitch up a full octave with a strange, unearthly, hollow sound.

The Sibelius violin concerto ranks among the most difficult violin concertos to play, and what I’ve heard from the rehearsing musicians is that Polina Sedukh makes it sound easy, drawing an astonishing life and depth from the music.

I, for one, can’t wait to hear it.

An Economy

My college roommate used to talk about his math teacher in high school.

“Last year,” the teacher would say, as introduction to his class, “you learned AN algebra. This year, you will learn THE calculus.”

There is an instructive truth to this. The algebra taught in high school is only one of an entire collection of different algebras with very different mathematical properties. Everyone knows, from high school algebra, that (A times B) is the same as (B times A). That’s because high school algebra is a commutative algebra. But there are non-commutative algebras in which this is not true. There are quantized algebras, and algebras over closed sets, and abstract algebras with names like “open-closed homotopy algebras,” or the algebra of a “rational two-dimensional conformal field on
oriented surfaces with possibly nonempty boundary.”

To say that you “understand algebra” almost invariably means that you understand the algebra taught in high school. It’s a little like saying you “understand language,” meaning that you understand your mother tongue, and can speak in full sentences. Most people know at least one language, and some know many languages, but to say that you “understand language,” if taken at face value, is highly unlikely to be true.

I believe that people who “understand economics” are in much the same situation. They understand AN “economics,” which attempts to describe one kind economy. But there are many different kinds of economy.

In the broadest sense, what is an economy? I would say it’s simply the things that people collectively do around an organizing theme.

If you look at ancient Egypt, they had a “pyramid building” economy. That’s just shorthand for a large collection of related activities, from farming the Nile delta, to raising up Pharaohs, to training armies, to venerating their gods, to — of course — actually building stone pyramids. The idea of the Pyramid more or less captures this idea of people doing activities around some organizing theme.

You can look at fourteenth-century Europe as having a “cathedral building” economy. It organized resources, and provided steady, multi-generational skilled employment for stone masons, architects, artists, glass-blowers, vendors of everything from bricks to pastries to holy relics.

The general thing about an economy is that it organizes the activities of excess labor: labor that would, absent the economy, have pretty much nothing to do but eat and procreate and quarrel.

Think about it. The stone masons are not producing food. Cathedrals can’t really be considered “shelter” from the weather. They aren’t good places to procreate — they’re drafty and full of cold, hard surfaces — and quarreling is likely to break something priceless. From any practical perspective, cathedrals — like pyramids — are pretty damned useless.

If you look at our economy, it seems that the focus is producing billionaires. Like the “pyramid economy,” the “billionaire economy” is an oversimplification. But if you look at what our modern capitalist economy produces, it is — purely and simply — capital: hoards of unspent wealth owned by individuals.

Unlike the pyramid economy, we don’t have a particular “thing” we produce with our excess labor. One of the current fads is computers, but in ten years, it may be windmills, or solar panels, or nuclear power plants, or desalinization plants, or something else. However, whatever “thing” we stay busy with, it will surely produce concentration of capital, and will produce another billionaire (or twenty).

The interesting thing is that most economies function, not by means of production, but by means of rationing. By definition, excess labor means excess goods, specifically food, and this is rationed out by a complicated system of “merit” based on the underlying economy. For the pyramid economy, surveyors lived better than log-rollers. For the cathedral economy, stonemasons lived better than street-sweepers.

Rationing is a way of rewarding people for complying with the current economy, and punishing those who do not. This is how it provides focus.

“I’d quit my job, but I have to eat.”

People didn’t build European cathedrals because they were pious. They build cathedrals because it was how they could earn their daily bread in the rationing system of the cathedral building economy. It was how they could gain standing, power, and wealth.

“It’s a good job, son. Learn to cut stone and you’ll never go hungry.”

Every job in our current economy is tied to profit, which is defined by its ownership class, which hoards paper wealth in a kind of financial Tokamak ring called the “stock market.” The goal of a real Tokamak ring is to produce nuclear fusion. The goal of the stock market is to store capital and grow endlessly bigger over time, filled with more and more money, buoyed up on a string of business fads that strut and fret their hour upon the stage, and then are heard no more. The great steamship builders; the great electric power utilities; the great computer cable networks.

We produce billionaires.

Future generations will look back on us, and ask, “What were they thinking?”

But to return to the opening topic, our economists study, not economies, but AN economy: specifically an economy that produces billionaires, not cathedrals or pyramids. In doing so, they rationalize and glorify the creation of billionaires — economists need to eat, too — and this warps the whole picture frame of what “economic health” looks like.

One of the questions that people throw out from the so-called “right-of-center” (on the accepted one-dimensional political axis) is: “How will we pay for it?” The “it” can be anything that people from the so-called “left-of-center” bring up: single-payer health care, student loan forgiveness, free education, free food for the homeless.

But that isn’t their real question. What they are really asking is, “How can we accomplish this thing that the left-of-center wants, but make it fit within the rationing rules of our current economy?”

Well, we can’t.

By definition, the people the left-of-center want to benefit are the ones currently being punished by AN economy that produces billionaires. If we we bail out the students, we will fall short on our annual quota of new billionaires. If we treat the sick, the billionaire economy will sag.

Explaining the left-of-center view to an economist is like explaining to the Exchequer of the Royal Court in Medieval Paris that we halted construction of a cathedral to dig a well for a bunch of lepers, the Cursed of God.

Off with your head, you irresponsible fool!

But the original question is the better question, and it has a simple answer.

“How will we pay for it?” We pay for it the way any economy pays for anything: with our excess labor. Because the economy is whatever we do with our excess labor. And we are approaching a crisis in what we are currently doing with our excess labor.

I had an amusing exchange with my boss this morning. We had our weekly online meeting, and he was fifteen minutes late, waiting for his computer system to reboot. Last week, I had to skip a meeting because my system wouldn’t connect sound in either direction. I had to talk with a co-worker today, and we had to switch to a different program to hear each other.

It seems like half of all our time is spent rebooting computers, upgrading phone software, filtering out junk mail, fighting with “productivity tools” that make us less productive, less communicative, and less organized.

What the Hell are we all doing?

Creating billionaires.

If economists tell us that this is our highest good as a people and a species, they are wrong. They are wrong because they are laying out the rules of AN economy, our economy. There are other economies.

It is time to change.