Why this is the wrong way, and why the populists have a point

The Brexit will be an historic milestone. It will be a marker, pointing out what not to do as humanity moves forward. It will bring the limitations of both democracy and capitalism into sharp focus. It will signal the death of the nation state.

On the other hand, it must be acknowledged that the populists are reacting to something real. The nation state already has less sovereignty. And the market system is rightly losing the peoples’ trust as greed and malfeasance at the top distort the market to the advantage of the one percent.

What next?

Stocks tank. The United Kingdom becomes England as the Scots, Irish, and possibly the Welsh vote to remain in the European Union. The great London financial hub goes the way of Jersey as a money magnet. If you can find a way to short London real estate, go for it.

Pretty bleak, right?

Yes – in the short term. Boris Johnson, in his clever and cynical ploy to become England’s next prime minister, was orating on the radio yesterday morning. It reminded me of Henry V’s famous speech before the Battle of Agincourt. Only . . . well, 600 years have gone by, and Boris will lose the battle for England in one way or another.

The Long View

But what is really going on here? For that we have to look at the larger and longer picture.

We have all heard of globalization and global warming. Global means global. All of us. All of humanity.

The Brexit is the result of English voters voting parochially because politicians pander to their (very real) fears in order to get or keep power. Democracy, thus bent, ceases to look good. But the idea, even after all this time, still has merit. True, England has voted what it perceives as English interests, and will suffer as a result. But the new democracy cannot be that of nation states. The new job of political leaders is to make democracy a global concern, voting humanity’s interests.

Ditto capitalism. The MBA culture has separated “management” from entrepreneurship. Entrepreneurs make stuff and do stuff. They put together teams that expand the world’s knowledge and hands-on ability. The MBA culture has led to the loss of knowledge and ability. Andy Grove (the last of the great managers) called it “breaking the chain of experience.”

What do we do?

The great challenge facing humanity is no less than learning to manage our Earth as a closed system for the benefit of all the people of the Earth. It will be a damn close thing. So the challenge includes our moving into space, and managing habitats other than the Earth as closed systems.

The good news is that these two systems management problems are essentially the same. Solve one, and you are most of the way to solving the other.

For examples of the new political and entrepreneurial leadership, look no further than President Barack Obama and Elon Musk. The president draws criticism because he is acting in the larger interests of humanity and not protecting temporary parochial interests. Elon Musk is sometimes condescended to because he does not take the money and run. Instead he re-invests – in electric cars, land-able rocket boosters, and now habitats on Mars.

Who Am I?

Existential Crisis?

Who is God? We have come to accept that She is Black, but we are shocked to discover that She is also Transgender. Why does that come to mind? Because last week’s news, more than ever, reminds us that we are blaming others for what we do to ourselves, and even for what we are.

In the narthex of the church I attend, there used to be a poster of Jesus. The caption was, He came to take away our sins, not our minds. I loved that poster. For me it was a pointer to the struggle we all face: “Who am I? And how do I fit in?” It said to me, faith is a wrestling match, with myself and with God.

That poster is gone now. Others have interpreted it differently. Perhaps they felt it contradicted something they believe.

That’s the world we live in. More than ever, our world throws daily challenges our way. Our worldview, our faith, and even our view of ourselves – these are buffeted and pushed around. We can no longer get through life with a constancy of self and faith.

It is no wonder that we react with fear, and retreat into groups we hope are small enough to shelter us. Family, ethnicity, gender – can we find safety there? Some years back President Obama said we had to leave behind the “lines of tribe”. How prescient he was.

Terror in the News

The massacre last week at the Pulse nightclub adds another dimension to the phenomenon that is staring us in the face. Could it be that, at bottom, it is about neither guns nor “Islamic Terrorism”? Could it be that there is more to it? How about an epidemic of existential crises?

Who is the typical ISIS recruit?

He is a he, for a start. A young man. What do young men want? Sex. They can’t wait. But if you are a Muslim, sex is forbidden outside the family. So they have to wait. But young men want families, too – and work. Work is key, because to answer the questions “Who am I?” and “How do I fit in?”, we must have both love and work. We must belong. We must be a part of something larger than ourselves.

ISIS fits the bill. Join, and there are sex slaves – even wives, if you want. You are instantly part of a huge movement, known around the world. You are part of the struggle against the decadent western civilization that has denied you everything: sex, family, work, love, and purpose. With one choice you fix everything.

But what if you are gay?

In the New York Times of June 17, 2016, Guy Branum wrote a piece entitled Pride after Orlando. This is a quote from that piece:

When word surfaced that the Orlando shooter had frequented gay bars and dating apps, some speculated that he might have been doing research to plan his attack. Gay people understood the other very real possibility, that the attacker might be a man with homosexual desires whom society had filled with so much secret shame that he would do anything to prove his distance from the gay world.

I read the piece and tried to put myself in the position of the potential ISIS recruit. I tried to put myself in the position of a human being who fits that profile and who, somewhere deep within, recognizes that he desires men. He is simply out of luck. His family and his religion say, no way. His isolation increases. There is no solution.

Why do we go out?

It is true that, more often these days, we stay home and put on a special meal for someone we love. Or we meditate. Or write a long email to a friend we haven’t seen in a while.

But sometimes we go out. A meal in a restaurant. A church service. Team sports. Why?

Maybe the wait staff are rude. Maybe the sermon rankles. Maybe that egomaniacal jerk took too many shifts as center.

But . . . even so we are exposed to the delicious range of humanity. Is Chaucer’s pardoner a model for our behaviour? Do we even like him? What about Shakespeare’s characters, who are to this day the best compendium of human nature?

No, we don’t love them all. At least, we don’t love them in the facile sense of the word. But in a larger sense we do love them, and we know that we need them in some fundamental way. Otherwise, why would these authors’ works still live?

I believe we go out, attend church, play sports and read Shakespeare because we are human and we need to know humanity in its full range. Only then do we have a chance to answer the existential questions: “Who am I?”, and “How do I fit in?”.

Modern Times

We live in a time when it is impossible to escape the influence of forces which shield us from humanity. These forces take many forms, and it is not my purpose here to blame any of them. Instead, my purpose is to incite curiosity: can we cultivate a habit of critical questioning? Can we decide for ourselves whom to trust and what to believe? Can we find the strength to trust ourselves?

For example, how important are likes on Facebook? Should these be something we actively seek? And how important a blow is an unfriending?

What about the news? Do we watch PBS, MSNBC, or Fox?

What newspapers and magazines and blogs do we read? Do we think about what is on offer at any of these “content providers”, and why?

In our time most of these “content providers” pitch to a profile which is frighteningly close to who we are. What do we get out of that? Cheap self-congratulation. Perhaps a sense of entitlement. But this filtered “content” also leads us to a self-induced isolation from a broad swath of humanity, and to our utter failure to challenge ourselves intellectually, emotionally, or spiritually. Should it surprise us then that we are experiencing an epidemic of existential crises?

What Now?

It seems to me that the bottom line is this: we cannot appreciate ourselves until we can appreciate others.

Have you taken shelter on a veranda and watched a thunderstorm roll through? Have you stood on an open hillside and felt an earthquake move the ground under your feet? Have you acknowledged their power and beauty, even as they spared your life?

Just so will you come face to face with your own power and beauty. The shock will be all the greater because you recognize your qualities for what they are: an essential fraction of that roiling atmosphere, those sliding and buckling tectonic plates.

The Future of Our Civilization

In the New York Times of June 10, 2016, Adam Frank wrote a piece entitled Yes, There Have Been Aliens. One of the questions therein is: How much longer will our civilization last? In this fascinating article the author and his colleagues remove this question from the Drake Equation of the 1960’s. That changes the larger question from Are there aliens out there? to Have there ever been aliens out there?Together with advances in astrophysics in the last decade, this changing of the larger question enabled them to put numbers into the terms of the equation and answer Yes, there have been aliens.

But for us the first and smaller question is still vitally important. It is our civilization, after all. Will our children’s children’s children even be born? What can we do to make it more likely that they will be?

I believe that we – humanity – can and will survive. But capitalism and democracy, although they have served us well, are not sufficient for the task at hand. As a civilization, we must use more of our human capital. The difficulty of this task of survival is too great to allow the marginalization of even one of us. In religious terms, we must expand our view of who God is. God must be all of us.

And none of us can take the easy way out. We cannot find ourselves and respect ourselves and contribute our gifts if we wall off others and retreat into an exclusive community.

Each one of us is a unique individual. But that is our gift, not our purpose. To put our gifts to use for humanity we must wrestle and struggle. We must answer the questions: Who am I? and How do I fit in?

If we fail in this, we are accountable only to ourselves and God. We can blame no one.

Money Under the Mattress

Why are interest rates so low? Why is spending so low? Why is our infrastructure crumbling? And why, with all this, is there no inflation? In Monday’s column, The Diabetic Economy, Paul Krugman tells us about the idea that low rates are like insulin for a diabetic, necessary to manage the symptoms of a chronic disease. That got me thinking about what this chronic disease might look like.

It’s true that our infrastructure is crumbling. Both Paul Krugman and Bernie Sanders have been saying we need to spend more. Interest rates are low, which should mean that spending on infrastructure is possible, even desirable. But government (read Congress) doesn’t want to spend, because that would mean higher tax rates. And everybody knows that you can’t borrow: you have to balance the budget. So what about the little guy? Maybe he could borrow, and get our economy moving again. But how does the little guy borrow? On his credit card, at 21% interest. He borrows only when he is in denial.

If the government is broke, and the little guy is broke, where is all the money? And what is investment? Who is investing? And in what?

We have come to look at investment from the side of the investor, without asking what the invested money does. We ask only how safe is this? and what is the return? Banks used to offer savings accounts which returned interest. Then the banks in turn would make loans to entrepreneurs who wanted to make something happen in the real economy. But as anyone with a bank account knows, that is not how it works today. So what happened?

Enterprises got larger. They issued stock: part ownership of the enterprise. The stock market provided a way to trade stock. It was a means of exchange. But in the last fifty years the financial world has changed. Finance has become “the financial industry”, a purposefully confusing rag-tag of banks, investment banks, venture capital and private equity companies, hedge funds, and insurance companies which issue contracts on wagers.

The underlying motive is of course to make money, but for whom? How is the money made? And what is produced?

The answer is that nothing is produced. The money is made by privatizing the profit and socializing the risk. In other words, by skillfully separating risk from profit. (Fraudulently, in my opinion. See or read The Big Short, the movie made from the novel by Michael Lewis.). And who makes the profit? An ever-smaller cadre of top managers. Fiduciary duty appears to be a thing of the past.

The result is that money is siphoned out of the real economy, the economy that makes the wheels go around. It is siphoned into private coffers, whence it seeks to find “investment” that makes a return for itself. Then that return goes right back into the coffers, without changing a thing in the real world. Is it surprising that this hoard money is having trouble finding a real home?

Through history, what has happened to that other means of exchange – money – when the people doing the trading lose confidence?

Weimar Germany. Inflation. Money loses its value. When people lose confidence in a shared convention, it doesn’t work anymore.

We are witnessing a similar phenomenon in the financial world. The “smart people” are manipulating money to produce money for themselves, leaving the real world starving for investment. In this they have been spectacularly successful. (See Bernie Sanders for details.) But the world – the real world – is losing confidence in finance. The vast hordes of cash held by the top 0.1% of individuals (and companies!) have nowhere to go. Chinese money is bidding up real estate in California and Vancouver. North American money is fleeing North America for the tax shelters of the world, or begging countries with stable currencies to take their money at minus 0.8%.

What now? We have to look with fresh eyes at what investment means. Sure, it is return on money we park somewhere. But the real meaning is in what the money does when it is parked. Does it produce something? Does it change our future? Look no further than Elon Musk. He used his stake in PayPal to start Tesla. He hasn’t shut down Tesla yet because he wants to make half the cars in America electric by 2020. He used his stake in Tesla to start SpaceX. SpaceX is taking over the work of the Space Shuttle. SpaceX just landed a booster on a barge. And SpaceX is going to colonize Mars. Purpose. Humanity is moving ahead.

Bottom line: money under the mattress serves no one. It is if it didn’t exist.

Ignorance, Incompetence, and Arrogance

Three Good Men

Two good men died last month. From opposite sides of the office, they left us with the same message: it is important to actually know what you are doing. There is another good man who died in 1988.

Robert Ebeling was an engineer at Morton Thiokol, the company that made the solid rocket boosters for the space shuttle. On his way to watch the shuttle launch, he told his daughter, “The Challenger is going to blow up. Everyone’s going to die.”

It was January 28, 1986. I was flying a B-767 (ship number 612, registration C-GAVF) between Toronto and Vancouver. The Captain was S.R. (Rod) MacDonald. I was the First Officer. It was my leg. We heard about the Challenger disaster when we were over Winnipeg, listening to the news on one of the ADF radios. I can still remember how stunned we felt, how sad for our fellow aviators.

Andy Grove was the tough and brilliant manager who founded Intel in 1968 with Gordon Moore and Robert Noyce. In a 2010 article he wrote for Bloomberg Businessweek, he said, “But what kind of a society are we going to have if it consists of highly paid people doing high-value-added work—and masses of unemployed?”

He wrote when we were still reeling from the Great Recession. Even now, six years later, the people in the trenches have not recovered. The “recovery” part of the economy has gone mostly to the top 1%.

But income distribution is only part of the story. In the same article, Andy Grove also said this about exporting jobs to fatten the bottom line: “Not only did we lose an untold number of jobs, we broke the chain of experience that is so important in technological evolution.”

Richard Feynman died at 69, in 1988. He was a Nobel physicist, but he was also one of the great teachers of the last century. A member of the Rogers Commission which investigated the Challenger disaster, he famously squeezed a rubber O-ring in a C-clamp and put it into a glass of ice water. When he removed it and undid the clamp, the O-ring did not spring back – it kept its distorted, squeezed shape.

The shuttle solid rocket boosters were built in sections. The joints were sealed with large O-rings. The shuttle had never been launched at such a low temperature. That’s what Bob Ebeling was thinking about when he talked to his daughter that day. He had spent the previous (week) trying to convince managers at both Morton Thiokol and NASA to postpone the flight.

The other shuttle disaster was Columbia, on February 1, 2003. It disintegrated on re-entry because a few thermal tiles were missing. They had been knocked off during launch. Pilots do a walkaround before every flight. These pilots were not allowed to do a space-walk to inspect the vehicle before re-entry. From safe seats in Houston, managers took control. Seven astronauts paid with their lives. For the curious: William Langewiesche published his Columbia’s Last Flight in the November, 2003 Atlantic Magazine. (William is the son of Wolfgang Langewiesche, who wrote the wonderful how-to-fly book Stick and Rudder in 1944). It is a good read and worth the time.

Andy Grove said, “we broke the chain of experience.” But it is worse than that. We are losing knowledge. In this day of the internet, where we can theoretically teach ourselves anything we want to learn, knowledge is actually disappearing.

As a pilot I study accidents, trying to learn and survive. Recently there has been another tragedy. The Board has not completed its study, but from what I (and many other pilots) know already, the cause(s) were well known to the trade. For me, that is the tragedy of the tragedy. It happened because trade knowledge was not being passed on.

It gets worse yet. In aviation, we are well into to age of robots. Fly-by-wire was introduced into commercial aviation in the Airbus A320 in 1988. Knowledge and skill have been coded with varying degrees of success. The hard-earned legacy of many crashes and many pilots’ lives lies hidden on a chip. Today’s pilots (still critical to survival) may or may not understand the code or (increasingly) their job.


Andy Grove, in the article mentioned above, put it succinctly and with more than his usual tact: Our fundamental economic beliefs, which we have elevated from a conviction based on observation to an unquestioned truism, is that the free market is the best of all economic systems—the freer the better. Our generation has seen the decisive victory of free-market principles over planned economies. So we stick with this belief, largely oblivious to emerging evidence that while free markets beat planned economies, there may be room for a modification that is even better.

Ideology blinds us, making learning – true learning – more vital than ever.

A very old friend – we have known each other since kindergarten – recently took up the subject of learning. He is retiring gradually from the practice of medicine, and he is re-examining the mathematics and science he learned forty-five years ago. Recently he showed me his derivation of the number e. It would be an exaggeration to say that I now understand e, but he has taken me parsecs closer. He himself, through his efforts, now owns the number e in his heart and soul.

This kind of learning is possible in our age, but even with the ubiquitous internet we have not yet figured out how (Although Sugata Mitra is getting warm).

So there is hope. But so far I see more loss than gain. Knowledge is leaking away.

The Cycle We Have to Break

There is a tragedy. We don’t want to assign blame or upset the apple-cart, so we don’t learn from our mistakes. Managers, once again, become arrogant and complacent. Engineers have to feed their families. They keep their mouths shut. When teachers are leaned on, they are already paid so little they are more likely to leave the profession entirely. But not all of them. Some stand up and say what needs to be said. Thank you, Andy Grove. Thank you, Bob Ebeling, And thank you, Richard Feynman.

The Life Cycle of a System

Thinking men and women design the new system. It won’t have the faults of the old one, because humankind learn from experience.

Although not without glitches, the kickoff is a success. Soon the new system is running smoothly. The people rejoice. They had grown tired of meltdowns.

The people begin learning the ways of the new system. The sharp spades dig in deep, specializing in the system’s arcana. It is not long before this aristocracy gets a handle on how to subtly tilt the system in their direction. Happy generations go by as the new nobles become convinced of their birthright.

For a while the plebeians are peaceful. Perhaps their religion asks for peace and the dignity of the person. Or maybe there is only so much you want to know.

Now generations have gone by and among the birthright nobles are some new spades, chips off the old block, but not quite as sharp. Or subtle. But they do manage to come up with cunning plans. Slightly insecure in their birthright, they are not to be outdone by parent or grandparent. This cadre comes to be known as the smart-ass set. Their mission in life is to game the system.

And sure enough, some smart-ass does. He takes the art of system-rigging to new heights. His rhetoric lauds the splendid robes as the emperor passes by. And for the most part smart-ass speech falls on ears willing to receive wisdom.

But plebes have children too. They come into the world fresh. They have not yet received wisdom. They can see the naked emperor.

They argue with their parents. They find that although their parents see the splendid robes, they do not like the emperor. Almost without realizing it, they have become angry. They have been losing their trust in the system.

It is a subtle aging, but a steady one. The system creaks and groans. Its life force weakens, and it loses function.

And so another system finds itself on the dustbin of history. Presently the children will probe among the ashes and build anew.

Open Letter to Elon Musk

Dear Elon,

Congratulations on trying to land every booster. The lessons learned will be invaluable in space. An congratulations on posting the failures as well as the successes on your site. Thanks for the video, for your observations, and for your humor.
You are right comparing the problem to landing on a carrier. If you would allow a few observations from a pilot, here goes:
As you say, the barge is translating and rotating. The rotation is in three axes: pitch and roll as well as yaw. After touchdown the tail of the booster is effectively fixed to the barge, but the nose (because of the pitch and roll of the barge) must describe an ellipse. Somehow forces must be generated to a) accelerate the nose around the ellipse, and b) counteract gravity (because the long axis of the booster is not parallel to the gravity vector), and c) compensate for the moment of the long axis if there is any translation at touchdown. Forces a, b and c act in the same direction, so the force required can be as large as their sum. The required correcting forces can be a) transmitted through the landing legs, or b) generated by the nose thrusters, or both.
In the video I can’t see the nose thrusters (last time, in the Atlantic, I could), nor do I know their thrust. However, you should be able to calculate the maximum size of the nose ellipse, as well as the maximum lateral velocity at touchdown, with the thrust available from the nose thrusters.
Last time I wrote I also suggested that the nose ellipse be flown prior to touchdown, to minimize these forces at touchdown. Also, a little more time in the vertical deceleration schedule might be advantageous, especially in the last ten meters or so (if the video is in real time).
The carrier landing analogy, then, is interesting but incomplete. The pilot of an F-18 can, for all practical purposes, consider his aircraft (and himself) as one mass acting at their combined center of gravity. The booster – a long shape touching down on its tail – cannot.

I wish you and your ventures well. No – more than that. They are our future.



Post-Election Campaigns

The election of Barack Obama in 2008 and Justin Trudeau in 2015 have this in common: their election has motivated certain media to wage personal campaigns against them after their election to office. These campaigns are not directed at government policy or at the office of president or prime minister, but personally at the duly elected holder of the office.

In the USA it has been Rupert Murdoch’s Fox News. In Canada it is the National Post. (Although it must be noted that, as noted in Ryan Lizza’s A House Divided, in the December 14 issue of The New Yorker, in the USA the Freedom Caucus (a group of republican representatives) has played an important role in campaigning against the president.)

Perhaps my history is weak, but I cannot remember the president being openly and consistently disrespected before President Obama came to office. And here in Canada the same thing is occurring since Prime Minister Trudeau’s election in October.

Montreal’s English language newspaper, The Gazette, was bought by Postmedia Network, Inc. Then a few weeks ago, the political section was replaced by a piece of the National Post, Canada’s right-leaning national newspaper. Even the page design and typeface are identical to the Post.

On the front page of this section on December 1, the headline is All Show and No Tell at Summit, and John Ivison’s comment piece touts Brad Wall, Saskatchewan’s premier, as a future leader of the Conservative Party who could take on Trudeau in the 2019 elections, saying that he has emerged as the national voice of the new conservatism – reasoned, market-based argument that doesn’t necessarily provoke two-thirds of the population to reach for their revolvers.

On the front page of this section on December 10, there is a charming photo (shot for Vogue Magazine) with the Prime Minister embracing his equally charming wife, Sophie. His hands are clasped over her rear end. She is wearing an Oscar de la Renta dress valued at $5700 provided by Vogue). The headline is A hands-on politician.

My point is that in a democracy, there are elections. People are elected to office to lead, and once in office are expected to do so. And the voters, having elected the leader, are then expected to respect the office, and save their misgivings until the next election.

But (especially since the infamous Citizens United decision by the US Supreme Court), rich people and corporations expect that they will have, in effect, more than one vote. They feel that they know better than the rest of us what is good for the country. They tilt the playing field, just as the banking industry preys on poor people by charging 21% interest on credit cards. That rate used to be called usury. Any economics textbook will explain the relationship between loan interest and risk. And yet the default rate on credit cards in no way justifies 21%. It’s just how banks make money. In each case the tilting of the playing field undermines the public confidence in capitalism. For more on how the distortion of democracy and capitalism works, and what results, check out The fall of Jersey: how a tax haven goes bust, in Tuesday’s Guardian.

The media (and elected officials who have been bought by the rich) undermine both democracy and capitalism by waging campaigns against the elected.

Labour is not Cheap

Today, as we honour those who toil, we might do well to look over our shoulders to see what has been happening. Only by remembering what was can we truly see what we have become. For example, see if you can find photos of yourself and your loved ones that go back over a generation. If you can, and you put them in date order, you will be swept up by the stop-frame movement through time. It will take your breath away.

I was a young person in the 1960’s. It was a time of intense hope and idealism. We spoke of not joining the man in his quest for money and status. Alas, it was not to be. We grew up and joined the man. It was the beginning of what Cornel West calls the Ice Age.

Another name for the man is the scientific management movement. Following Henry Ford, it broke up manufacturing into small chunks that minimized the need for skill. You could, the thinking went, make high-quality goods without the trades, without apprenticeship, without good work. And if you didn’t need good work, you didn’t have to pay for it. All the skill (and the pay) resided in management.

Barry Schwartz, in Rethinking Work, a well-timed piece in the New York Times of August 28, pointed out that it was Adam Smith himself who provided the seed for the growth of the man. In the foundational document of capitalism, The Wealth of Nations, he opined that people were naturally lazy and would work only for pay. “It is in the interest of every man to live as much at his ease as he can.”

Professor Schwartz (psychology at Swarthmore) also tells us that Adam Smith’s idea that the worker is lazy has become a self-fulfilling prophecy. I would add that if work is cheap, you will get cheap work.

But there are more – and more disturbing – revelations in Rethinking Work. They have to do with a worker’s engagement and enjoyment, which in turn flow from his feeling that his work is meaningful, that it makes a difference. According to Gallup polls, says Schwartz, Nine out of ten workers spend half their waking lives doing things they don’t really want to do in places they don’t particularly want to be.

I know this is harsh and heretical, but here is my thought for the day:

Yes, Adam Smith laid the foundation for capitalism. While not perfect, it has been the best option for centuries. But Adam Smith was and is wrong about the human being. We are not lazy. We can tolerate being dirt poor. What we cannot tolerate is a life without meaning, a life remote from connection with the larger society. So what do the poor, the uneducated, and the unemployed do?

In West Side Story, they joined a gang. In The Wire, they sold drugs on the corner. In 2015, they join ISIS and commit to jihad. Is that so far from what Cornel West calls the fire?

Fire means a certain kind of burning in the soul that one can no longer tolerate when one is pushed against a wall. So, you straighten your back up, you take your stand, you speak your truth, you bear your witness and, most important, you are willing to live and die.

Can a mistake of Adam Smith have borne so much strange fruit? Income inequality, gangs, drugs, jihad. What a terrible waste of our precious and talented youth!

Lowest Common Denominator

At the airport, there are two security lines. There is one where you have to take off your shoes, and another where you do not. Yes, you guessed it: for the second you need elite status.

It shouldn’t be surprising that an airline, a corporation, would divide humanity into two classes. It is the invisible hand of the market at work.

In today’s New York Times, Josh Barro, in Facing Elite Bloat, Airlines Move the Goal Posts, writes about his elite fall from grace. It seems that now plebes contend with not only the elite and the super-elite, but even higher orders. Remember how we used to speak of the 99% and the top 1%? And how now, more often, we refer to the top 0.1% or even the top 0.01%? Well, this elite thing has done so well for the airlines they are now facing elite bloat, where some plebes have invaded the bottom tier.

Their first response was to add classes to top the top elite, perhaps platinum, diamond, kryptonite, and unobtanium. But that didn’t fix things. As Josh Barro writes, “But mostly, (the airlines) have dealt with the problem by devaluing the lowest tier.”

Does that feel familiar? It probably does if you have a job, or if your degree is not from an elite university, or if your annual income is less than $1M. It certainly does if you are a tradesperson, or a nurse, or a teacher. You know, one of those people who has to rely on union seniority or tenure to have a chance in the marketplace.

Yes, it is as true in politics as it is in marketing – we have discovered a common denominator lower than greed: feeling superior.

So before you vote next time, ask yourself a question: do I feel superior to anyone? If you do, chances are someone has been pulling your chain.

D Minor Passion

I came back to the keyboard recently after a few years’ absence, and looked at Bach’s Art of the Fugue. I had always found it impossible to play, blaming my short fingers. But this time what I found is a puzzle: you can play it with two hands, ten fingers. Even short ones. But there are many passages (some one beat long) where the inner voices change hands back and fourth – there are three voices in one hand and only one in the other. The voices cross, making it difficult sometimes to hear the voice leading. But every time I come to something I think is impossible, I find that Bach was there before me. There is a way forward: see, the soprano has been silent and you have tenor and alto in the right hand. The tenor is descending to the octave above the bass. Take the octave with the left thumb. Transfer the alto note to the right thumb. The alto leaps up an octave. Take that with the fourth finger, so the fifth can do the soprano entry.

I remember a concert in Montreal. Bernard Lagacé was playing the entire Art of the Fugue on the wonderful 1961 von Beckerath organ at Imaculée Conception. He said, (was it in the program notes?) “After playing this work I am spiritually exhausted.”

Today, working my way slowly through the first five fugues, I think I know why. And I think suddenly of two more works in D Minor: Bach’s Chaconne from the Partita No. 2 for solo violin, and the last fugue (D Minor) from Shostakovitch’s 24 Preludes and Fugues, Opus 87, which is itself an homage to Bach.

It is because the D-minor theme is a person, and the development is her life.

The Chaconne is intense from the beginning. The eight-bar theme statement is all triple and quadruple-stop, rolling-bow virtuosity. The thirty-two variations are a spiritual roller-coaster ride. So much so that the return to the quadruple-stop theme is a rest, a relief. Exhausting.

In the fugues – both the Art of the Fugue and the Shostakovitch Opus 87 – the theme is set against itself and various counter-themes. The voice – the person – is always recognizable, right side-up or upside-down. The passion and struggle is later, as the theme shoulders its way into an increasingly complex structure. It is impossible that it will fit in this chromatic storm, you think, and then it does, and you are amazed and exhausted.

The end can be a bang or a whimper. The theme can rage, or it can find peace. In the Art of the Fugue, on the very last page, he has just introduced a new theme: BACH (B♭, A, C, B). He sets up the new structure, and has just introduced the BACH theme in inversion (upside-down) and . . .

That’s it. His life. Not rage, not really. Certainly not a whimper. Perhaps it is peace . . .