Happy Birthday, America.
A few days ago, I was sorting out stuff in my OLD PERSONAL CRAP box. And there, below my HUNTINGTON LIMOUSINE commemorative wristwatch, beside the putty-encrusted Vulcan ear tip extensions, and right there on top of all of my 80’s pins (I’M NEARLY FAMOUS, UGLINESS STRIKES 1 OUT OF 4, WHY CAN’T I BE RICH INSTEAD OF GOOD LOOKING?) was something I hadn’t seen in a long while. It was a business card – and when I flipped it over, it said MINDFIRE FILMS, INCORPORATED. It had a cool logo designed by my personal design studio, my too-talented friend Steve Stipp: an oval head with glowing eyes and fire for hair – too much like those damn skulls in DOOM that I would encounter years later. But the best part was beneath the logo:
How old was I when I had these printed? Nineteen? Twenty, maybe? I remember incorporating very well, because it cost about $150 and all you got for it was that cool thing you used to emboss your Seal on all the Important Financial Documents you would be Signing. I remember thinking $150 seemed like a lot of money, too – you could get some 16mm stock for that kind of cash.
But there we were: Incorporated American Teenagers. I was the president of a motion picture company. Why? Because I didn’t want spend four years trying to get a crummy $500 grant. I wanted real money to make a movie. I wanted investors.
And I got a few, too…the poor bastards.
Today, on her 227th birthday, the United States stands astride the world as the most economically, militarily and culturally powerful force history has yet revealed.
Well, one reason is because here in America, a practically broke 19 year old kid can be the President of a Corporation, that’s why. Of course some of these fail. Most of them fail, spectacularly fail, flaming wreckage, oh-the-humanity failures. I’ve had many of these, personally. More will no doubt come. It’s easy to succeed in a country that lets you fail this often and this easily.
The ingredients for greatness, goodness, success, happiness and prosperity are not hard to find, and yet so much of the world is a political and economic disaster.
Because folks, it ain’t the ingredients. It’s the recipe.
So we’re off on a little all-American road trip, this time to figure out why our economy, when sick, is stronger than anyone else’s, when healthy. To see if we can figure out how 300 million strangers, all the troublemakers and upstarts from every nation in the world, can come to one vast continent, be given more freedom than any people before or since, and manage to become the most prosperous, powerful, tightly-knit nation in history. And how come we invent everything, too? Must be something in the water out there.
We’re gonna go find out. Let’s just hop in the car and see if we can’t chase down that American Dream. You know the one: Think of a better way. Take a chance. Start a business. Put in the extra time. Work hard. Buy a house. Live a better life than your parents and a poorer one than your kids. And do it all in a place where you can be free and happy and safe.
America is a success machine. Yes, it’s easy to fail in America. It is also the easiest place in the world to succeed, to do the big things -- become wealthy or famous -- or just carve out a comfortable little patch of ground to spend an afternoon barbequing or watch your teenage kid drive off in their brand new used car.
It’s a siren song for many people, this idea of freedom, this dream of making your own life according to a script you wrote in your head. But it’s not for everybody. It requires some courage, at times. It demands hard work. It can challenge your bland security. It’s not cheap, this American Dream – nor should it be. And it lives and breathes optimism. Without that you’re sunk.
So y’all hop in the back and I’ll roll down the top. It’s a gorgeous day, we’ve got the Beach Boys on the stereo turned up to 11 and we’re hitting the road looking for the three things that make America hum. And no crybabies! We don’t have the time or the energy to waste on mean-spirited, bitter complainers – people who are so filled with gloom and doom that It’ll never work is stitched into the slack elastic of their unchanged underwear.
Whiners. Defeatists. Pessimists. Losers. Big “L” on their forehead. Can you think of another word for gloomy, reality-challenged crybaby that begins with the letter “L”?
To hell with those people! It’s our birthday, dammit. This one is for us. Americans. This includes all you Americans living in foreign lands with foreign passports, speaking foreign languages and holding foreign citizenships. You know who you are. If you’re an optimist, if untrammeled freedom makes you giddy, if you think you know of a better way to do something and just want a chance to try, if you can tell right from wrong and still care about the difference, if you’re soft hearted and tough minded, if you think we could all get along just great if we’d all just leave each other alone, if you don’t like to fight but know sometimes you just have to, and most especially, if the idea of leaving the huddled masses and joining the pursuit of happiness has a mystical appeal for you, then you are already an American in your heart. Welcome home. Get here any way you can. We need people like you.
Hop in the back and let’s get outta here. But before we shove off, three quick things:
One: this is a big country. Go to the bathroom NOW. We’re heading out to the desert – that means doing 80, minimum – and we're not stopping ‘till we get below ¼ tank, so figure three hours. And that’s 80 mph, not eighty of those crappy little kilometers. Remember, US minimum wage is about 3 gallons of regular an hour. Even when we start out working at McDonalds, American teenagers have a pretty long leash – ‘bout a half-continent per paycheck. Part time.
Two: Keep an eye out for Jackalopes.
Three: Rest Areas are For Emergency Use only. There is nothing scenic or interesting about them. Stopping anywhere other than to get gasoline and food is to admit failure and defeat. Real Americans judge their progress by the number of Rest Areas they can pass in one shot. That sign we just blew past – Next Service Station 96 Miles – means that you can go to the bathroom in a little over an hour. I told you to go before you got in.
Oh, and bring your favorite CDs or cassettes: Fleetwood Mac’s Second Hand News, One Week by Bare Naked Ladies, Ballroom Blitz by The Sweet: anything that moves, ‘cause that’s what we’re doin’. We’ve got the top down, the shades are on, I’m knocking out the beat on the steering wheel, and where we’re going, there ain’t no NPR...
I used to live in the desert. I spent about a year and a half out here among the scrub grass and the Joshua trees – long enough so that when I went back to Florida the mere sight of a puddle of standing water would make me gape in amazement. I was working at a glider port, which meant flying gliders, launching gliders, and when I wasn’t flying or launching – most of the time – it meant standing out in the 114 degree heat and raking rocks. For rock gardens. Know what’s underneath a layer of desert rocks? More rocks. The place was run by a former Navy test pilot. In the Navy, enlisted men with free time are only capable of doing one of two things: painting the grey deck grey – again -– or planning the hideous murder and ritual cannibalism of the Commanding Officer. So rocks it was.
I’ll venture a guess that most Europeans –- most easterners, for that matter -- aren’t really emotionally ready for just how open and remote things are out here. The sky is a deep blue bowl from horizon to horizon. Big Sky. It leans down on you. You spend an hour or two out under that sky and you can feel yourself decompress. It’s a bit like your first scuba moment: disorienting, not exactly comfortable, but cool.
It seems an odd sort of place to look for the key to America’s greatness. We’re a long way from any city. A long way. Well, you’ll see when we get there. Not far now.
The desert is a great place to hide things. It’s a great place to test things. And that’s where I’m taking us: a test site. One of my readers was kind enough to invite us way the hell out here and give us a tour of a place I’ve wanted to see for a long, long time. There’s a lot of history out here, see? Right at the end of this windy little road…
That giant molehill over there, is, in fact, a bunker. Steel blast doors, reinforced concrete buried under a huge mound of earth. Of course, it’s starting to rust and show some age now. That makes it even more ominous. Seeing it reminds me of something – what is it? Oh. Got it. The old historic sites at the Kennedy Space Center – was that the blue tour or the red? – where you could stand in the Mercury blockhouse a few feet from where they lit the candle under Alan Shepard on May 5th, 1961. Same look and smell of old steel and concrete, ancient, Paleolithic electronics, the sound of frantic slide rulers decaying off the walls.
The wind is whipping like a --.
Well, the wind is whipping hard, so hard that as we climb to the top of the bunker we have to lean steeply into it. And surprisingly, it’s damn cold, too – I'm glad I brought the jacket. It’s snapping loudly in the gale, and the wind is kicking up dust and small pebbles that sting the back of our ears as we turn and look down and out at the test site.
We’re here because this is what American power, American might is all about. Right there in front of us, out there, in the middle of nowhere.
That’s the place.
I believe that there are three elements – just three – that we mix in just the right ratio to perform our national alchemy. Look around you at the rest of the world. Those who use none of these ingredients are disasters, basket cases, failed states where misery and poverty crush the life out of what is almost an indomitable human drive to create, to nurture, and to prosper.
Almost indomitable. There are governments, theories, and people that have managed it after many years of hard and dedicated work.
We together have wasted enough time talking about these failed ideas, these various and sundry kleptocracies, these stinking, wretched failures. We know what they are and we know what they look like. Today we are hunting success.
One of the three, any one, buys you a respite. Not a huge one, perhaps, but a glimmer of hope. Two, and life begins to become livable. Grey, perhaps. Uninspired. But livable.
Pull all three together and you have a society worth living in. Pull all three together in just the right way, and you have a reactor, a fire-breathing creativity engine that unlocks in each of us the very best people we can become.
Stop guessing. Sorry, but it’s not God, Guts and Guns. The Arabs have God, the Russians have Guts and the Colombians have Guns – you want to live there?
We’re going to take a moment to look at each one of the three, each element in this national Trinity of success and prosperity.
These three pillars have several things in common. Their first and greatest strength is that they are self-correcting. They require optimism – remember that: that’s critical. They are beyond flexible: they are supple. No, even more – they are fluid. And yet each has strict rules that must be rigidly obeyed for the reactor to produce full power. This combination of a rigid internal structure, coupled with astonishing flexibility, is what gives them, like a human acrobat, mind-boggling capabilities that leave us gaping in awe at the results.
Two are pretty easy to understand. One isn’t. So let’s be sensible and do the hard work first.
The first of these three pillars has several names: private property, the free market, enlightened self-interest… but the first essential element of the American Trinity, and the hardest to come to grips with, is Capitalism.
Capitalism just galls some people. They just. Can’t. Stand it.
Now I have thought about this one long and hard, and no matter how I look at it, I come to the same striking conclusion, and that is this:
Where you stand on the political spectrum, what you think of rich and poor people, and what you think about rich and poor nations and how they should act in the world, comes down, in my mind, to one single issue, and one only: Can wealth be created, or can it only be redistributed?
If you believe, as I do, that wealth can be manufactured out of thin air, then there is no limit to the amount of wealth you can amass. And since you are creating it out of thin air, there is no moral onus on making money – you work hard to create it and have stolen from no one. There is an expression for this: you earned it.
Indeed, since charity depends on excess wealth, excess capacity, the more you make for yourself the better off everyone else is. You can even throw charity out the window if you are so hard-hearted; the fact remains that you will spend that money to get the things you want, and the more you have the more you can spend. That money goes to other people. This interchange is called “the economy,” and rich societies are rich because they understand in their bones the centerpiece of Capitalist thinking: Wealth can be created from thin air by human ingenuity and hard work.
Now people on the left have, in their guts, a revulsion towards the rich and the wealthy, because whenever they see wealth they naturally assume that it was stolen from people without any – the poor. That rich man in the private jet has taken the wealth from all the poor people and is therefore a criminal.
If you think about all of the protestors you see on TV, whether they be against US “imperialism”, or globalization, or corporations, or claim to be champions of the Poor, both here at home and for poor nations in the world – all of this anger and seething resentment, all of this bitterness and invective, can be attributed, when all is said and done, to having chosen to believe that there is only so much wealth in the world, and that rich people and rich nations gain and maintain wealth by stealing prosperity from the weak.
This is so idiotic, so demonstrably false, that you really have to wonder why we are having this discussion. All of the money owed to rich nations by the poor – money that was lent to them to lift them from poverty, and then squandered on palaces for dictators and Socialist prestige projects like International Airports in the middle of nowhere -- all this money totaled together, is a small percentage of the wealth generated by rich countries in a single year. The idea that the United States can steal 10 trillion dollars a year from dirt-poor nations that don’t produce anything of value is absolutely insane, and yet, and yet, we hear it again and again and again from the professionally outraged who must be obtuse beyond human understanding to keep making such an absurd lie the basis of their entire philosophy.
If we can prove that our core tenet is correct, that wealth is limited only by imagination and the desire to work hard, then not only does the left’s economic theory come crashing down like a Statue of Lenin…their entire view of US power has to be fatally flawed, as well. Because if we make enough wealth to be able to buy our oil at prices set by the seller – consult reality for confirmation of this annoying fact – then perhaps we are not in places like Iraq and Afghanistan to steal oil from poor Arabs. There must be some other reason for it. Something completely unintelligible and unknowable: national security, perhaps, or simple disgust with torture and repression and terrorism. Things like that.
Get this through your heads, you socialist ninnies! There is not a big, limited pot of wealth that is filled with the Magic Sweat of Authentic Third World Laborers, that America uses its military to steal from when we run out of wealth here at home.
Here’s something even the dimmest hippy protester / poet should be able to wrap his mind around:
You buy a legal pad: $1.29
You steal a Bic pen from the counter at Kinko’s: free.
You write the script for Weekend at Bernies 3: Bernie’s Revenge!: free.
You hire someone to type it: $30.00
You have Kinko’s print 5 copies: $62.20
You mail the 5 copies: $7.82
5 idiots in Hollywood love the idea: free
They enter a bidding war: free
You get a check for: one…million…dollars!
So let’s see…that $1,000,000, minus the $101.30 in expenses…uh…that means…You, the village idiot, have just raised the Gross Domestic Product by, uh, one million freaking dollars, and have made a personal profit of $999,898 dollars and 69 cents.
Where did the $999,898.69 come from? It came from thin air! You created it, out of nothing. You added value to the stock of paper and ink you started with. From the monumental talent you possess, the gift of intellect, the pen that made Shakespeare weep with envy, you have created WB3. You’ve given millions of people two hours of side-splitting hilarity, for which they will part with $8.00…and you have created wealth. What’s more, when you go and blow it all on the pointless material crap that makes life so much fun, you’ll be bringing in a little extra for the Sea-Doo distributor, the BMW dealer, the girls at Cheetahs in Las Vegas, and all the others. Not to mention putting – I dunno – maybe half a million freaking dollars into welfare, Social Security, Medicare, the National Endowment for the Arts and the world’s first fusion-powered, laser-armed, flying stealth submarine, the USS George W. Bush.
You did not have to steal $999,898.69 from a farmer in Angola.
And in just the same way as your finished screenplay is worth more than the total cost of the paper and ink you needed to write it, so too is my 2000 Ford Escort ZX2 worth more than the hunk of iron ore, the silica for the glass, the chemicals for the plastic and tires, and the cost of the factory, the electricity to run the factory, and the salary of the people who build the car. That car, like that screenplay, has greater value than the raw materials that comprise it. Through human ingenuity, value is added. Wealth is created from thin air.
More relative wealth is created from building a Learjet than making a pencil, but then again, there are a lot more pencils than Learjets. Any time we make either, or any of the millions of things in between, we create wealth. From thin air. We did not go and take the money at bayonet point from some campesino trying to scratch out a living somewhere, and if I hear that lie again from those magnificently dense, blind and smug idiots, well, from now on I’m just going to haul off and kick ‘em in the nuts. We should not have to keep going over something so simple, so basic, and so completely and totally obvious.
That capitalism generates wealth is beyond debate. This capitalist reactor of ours easily invents more, learns more, and produces more benefits in a year than mankind did under a millennia of rule by Kings and Barons and Caliphs and Emperors. It’s just amazing what people can do when you just get the hell out of their way.
As an economic system for increasing prosperity, you just can’t beat it. And those who despise capitalism can’t argue with this – they just can’t. What they can do, perpetually and loudly, is talk about how unfair Capitalism is. Because it allows the hard-working and ambitious to keep the rewards of their hard work and ambition, Capitalism does indeed produce some pretty uneven results.
But does uneven mean unfair? Depends on how you measure fair.
Now far be it for me to split linguistic hairs and argue over what the definition of “is” is. But if we’re going to get to the heart of this unfair business, we have to ask ourselves, unfair to whom? Because if we are to talk intelligently about this, we’re going to have to understand something right out of the gate: life is unfair. If life were fair, we’d all be the same – same intelligence, same drive, same capabilities. But we’re not. It is a hallmark of our species that we vary wildly in these and many other categories. That’s what makes us so diverse, and we sure want to celebrate that, don’t we?
So, when we talk about making things fair, making them equal, we find ourselves in the same impossible conundrum as we do when we discuss The Irresistible Force meeting The Immovable Object.
Cool! Which would win?
Neither. It’s an oxymoron. The definition of Irresistible Force means that there cannot be an Immovable Object, and vice versa. You have to pick one or the other. They are mutually exclusive.
Likewise, when we try to measure fair and equal, we have to face the hard reality that people are different. So, do we want to measure an equal front end: equality of opportunity – or an equal back end: equality of results? Can’t have both.
When the Declaration of Independence thundered that All Men are Created Equal, it meant equal in those essential elements: equal under the law. Equal in terms of basic human rights. Equal in dignity. Equal in the sense that if someone with a lot of money thinks they can cut in front of me at an ATM line just because they’re rich, then they can just kiss my Royal Irish Ass! – that kind of equal.
But to believe that all people are equally capable is to…well…not be paying attention, as a quick game of one-on-one half-court between Michael Jordan and Michael Moore will quickly reveal. (note to Don King: There are millions, and I mean millions to be made off this idea. Call me.)
There will always be people smarter than you, and people more stupid; people more and less motivated, ruthless, connected, ambitious, frugal, hardworking than you are. Nothing can change that. Nothing should change that – because there lies the Gulag. People are different. Leave them alone. Encourage the downhearted, by all means. Help those in need when they ask for help. But otherwise mind your own business, bub.
Society is as fair as it can get when all people have equal opportunity to make what they will of themselves. We are not there yet. We are close. We are much, much closer than many would have us believe.
But people are different. They will always be different. They will succeed and fail differently. There’s no two ways around it.
Like so many flawed ideas beloved by the far left, equality seems like a noble enough goal. Until you think about it. People have different capabilities. So do you want equality of opportunity – as I do – where people can make of themselves what they will? Or do you want equality of results, where society steps in to make sure that everyone comes out the same?
If society had a magical way of raising the bottom up, of speeding up, buffing up, and tidying up Michael Moore, thereby giving him the means to beat Michael Jordan in our (sadly) mythical game of half-court, well we’d all be the winners and life would be just dandy. But, alas, this wonderful, brilliant idea is marred only by the annoying fact that it is demonstrably impossible. Michael Moore can never play as well as Michael Jordan. Never. If you want that game to come out a tie – equal! – then you are going to have to hobble Michael Jordon.
You’re going to have to remove a foot or two from his femurs, stitch him into a clumsy, bulky, ugly suit adding a few hundred pounds, heavily sedate him to slow down his mental powers, fill him full of cheap booze to degrade his aim and coordination – oh, and really mess up his face surgically. No fair if people are rooting for him disproportionately! That might hurt Michael Moore’s self-esteem and limit his ability to compete.
Do all these things, and more, and you will have two equal players. You will have a really stupid, incompetent, pointless game. You will have removed all the grace, power, style, finesse and genius from a gifted and noble man, and added nothing whatsoever to his opponent. You just made Michael Moore equal to Michael Jordan. Now is that fair to Michael Jordan?
And after you’ve done all these things, Michael Jordan will still hand Michael Moore his ass because he thinks and acts like a winner and not a victim.
Equality under the law: good. Essential.
Forcing people of differing skills, motivation and capability to be “equal:” ruinous. Suicidal. And deeply, deeply unfair. But, for the Berkeley crowd, there’s no reason why a fatally flawed, disgusting, historically-demolished idea can’t be retried – and retried – and retried… So long as it will fit on a 2x4 foot piece of cardboard that you can hold on the end of a stick while dancing in a public fountain wearing a star-spangled diaper.
Does Capitalism, and its equality of opportunity, produce cruel results? It does. Does Socialism, and it’s equality of outcome, produce a fair and happy society? Ask the Russian farmers under Stalin. Ask the Chinese under Mao during the Cultural Revolution. Ask the Cambodians under the Khmer Rouge.
Oh, wait – you can’t. They’ve all been murdered.
Our opponents across the Great Reason Divide care not a whit about the logic of this. Their house is built on compassion, and that’s basically all they’ve got. So, What about the poor?!
Well, that’s a serious question, a legitimate question, and there is in fact an absolutely compelling answer to that question.
The satisfaction you derive from the answer will be dependent on a very simple emotional equation that you already have stored in your head, namely: do you love the poor more than you hate the rich?
I can see by the way you are staring at your Birkenstocks that you are disoriented and confused. Let me rephrase the question: would you rather see the poor live better, or would you rather see the rich torn down? I know some people think you need to do the latter to get the former, and in this they are quite completely raving mad, not to mention provably wrong, as we shall see in a moment. Just think about it for a second. What means more to you? Seeing poor people live better, or seeing rich people taken down?
If you said the former, then we are in complete agreement, and congratulations on your high moral character. If you said the latter, then you’re just a mean-spirited, bitter failure with nothing better to do with your endless supply of free time than steal from and bitch about those more hardworking, industrious, motivated and socially worthwhile people than yourself. In fact, why are you still here? Don’t you have some signs or giant puppets to make or something?
Now I can see a few honest souls who don’t really see how cut-throat capitalism helps the poor. Well, that’s fair, because capitalism is a study in contrasts. In fact, this would be as good a time as any to admit that I’ve spent much of my life worrying myself sick about making enough money to pay the bills. You’ll just have to take my word for this. I know what it’s like to have your phone and electricity cut off. I know what it’s like to avoid the telephone and the mailbox – in fact, I know what it’s like to avoid a stern knock on the door.
But even during the many times I’ve been out of work, flat broke, worried sick and living off the kindness of my life-saving friends – you guys know who you are – even then, when I was practically throwing up from fear, even then – I have never, ever considered myself a poor person. I have always thought of myself as a rich person experiencing severe cash flow problems.
That is a distinctly American attitude. Optimism. Hope. Ambition. You break these chains in your head first – everything else will follow.
Now in order to fully appreciate why Capitalism is such a blessing – including being a blessing for the poor – we have to understand what poverty is. We have to have a definition of poverty. And we have to understand what it really means to be poor in a rich country, and to be rich in a poor one.
We keep hearing certain professional (as in paid) complainers bleating about how the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. That’s just wrong. That’s demonstrably, provably false. It’s a lie.
The rich get richer, and the poor get richer too. At least here they do.
American poverty is defined by a certain income. These people are poor by definition. I’m not trying to be sarcastic, and I’m not trying to minimize the pain of it – I’m just stating a fact.
Now, what does it mean when we learn that the poorest Americans have incomes higher than 90-some percent of the rest of the world? What does that mean?
Poor people in America have electrically powered homes. They have the same clean running water the rest of the city residents have. Almost all have telephones and television. Many have a third-hand piece of crap automobile like my last three cars. (My current ride has had one previous owner and 12,000 miles and it feels new. I’ve never owned a new car.)
Does it suck to be poor in America? It depends on who you talk to. If you spend your life calculating what Bill Gates makes while you were sleeping, chances are you’ll be pretty ornery. But if you look out into the rest of the world, and even a few decades back into history – American history, a rich country’s history -- then you just might begin to realize that you, a poor American, are living better than just about any other humans in history, and I am including the richest people of just sixty or seventy years ago – a single human lifespan for a poor American. A hundred years ago, if the Crown Prince caught the flu, that richest, most powerful person on the earth, likely as not, died. At this hour, at this instant, people of all incomes are being saved from certain death in clinics and hospitals by treatments unimaginable a few short decades ago.
Some facts are undeniable – that’s why we call them “facts.” Lifespan and infant mortality are scientific data sets that pay no attention to ideology. The first has been rising, the other dropping, all across the globe, and doing so spectacularly where capitalism has taken hold. Rich capitalist countries -– the ones with those evil kkkorporations -- are also far cleaner – Greener, you might say – than poor, socialist ones. That’s got to stick a little, thinking about that up there in that tree night after night, for years.
Where monumentally thick governments, like that of China, are finally forced to get out of the way and let people work to improve their own lives –- we call this process ”making money” -- the results are simply dumbfounding, given the amount of poverty that has been foisted on that industrious nation for a few millennia of raw tyranny. Ask your solid, upper-middle-class in Egypt, or Vietnam, or Belarus, if they’d like to get a chance to start a new life as a poor American. Then get the hell out of their way, if you don’t feel like tasting the sidewalk.
One of the few places where longevity is falling drastically is in the ruin of Russia and her poor, literate, long-suffering people. Communism is still killing those poor bastards. It’s like a disease that stalks you even after it’s been eradicated.
What a filthy legacy.
Now I told you this one would be tough, but we’re almost done with it. In order to show how Capitalism helps the rich, the poor, and the middle, we have to look at income. Unfortunately for the grey-ponytail crowd, this will require just a smidgeon of math and a little tiny bit of other stuff they didn’t study for when they were out getting high behind the dumpsters.
It involves a graph. If you are one of those people who are now reaching for a pencil and paper, then you already pass and spend the rest of study period at the library. The rest of you pay attention, especially you kids way in the back whose every other word is Nazi! The rest of us are getting a little tired of having to keep explaining this to you. So pay attention!
In your mind, draw a vertical line down the left side of a piece of paper, and a horizontal one across the bottom. Yes, it makes an “L” Moonflower…
The left-hand, vertical line represents the number of people. The higher we go, the more people there are. The horizontal line is income: the further to the right, the more silk you get to wear.
Now place a bell-curve along the bottom line. Okay? A Bell Curve. Simple.
Now, down on the bottom left are the poorest Americans. There are relatively few really desperately poor people. As we move to the right, into higher incomes, we see more and more people -– the line goes higher. We’re still on the left side of the curve -– the cheap seats. Most of the people -– the bulge in the bell -- make an average salary: that’s why we call it “average” (You statisticians leave means and medians and that stuff out of it. Just play along.)
Okay, now as we move to ever higher incomes, we see fewer and fewer people making the big bucks. Numbers go down. And then all the way at the end sit Bill Gates and Sam Walton all by their stinking rich selves. Okay?
Let’s call that a snapshot of America today.
Now, if we rob from the rich, and give to the poor, then what happens?
The rich people get poorer, the poor people get richer…the ends contract…the bell curve gets narrower. The right side, the rich side, moves left – poorer. The left side, the poor half of the curve, moves right – richer. In a socialist utopia, there is no curve; there’s just a single vertical line in the middle called The Salary. Collect all the revenues, add ‘em up, divide by the total number of people, and pay them all the same exact amount.
Everybody makes the same: the Salary. Let’s say it’s fifty grand a year. Brain surgeons, the guy who cleans the toilet at the 7-11 –- everyone makes fifty grand.
Fifty grand! Woo-hoo!
Now let’s set aside for a moment the non-trivial issue of whether or not such a society -- which rewards 12 years of intense medical study and endless hours doing breathtakingly difficult and essential work exactly the same as the guy who spent his teen years stealing stereos, getting high and listening to White Snake -- is more “just” and “compassionate.” Look at the bell curve -- or what’s left of it.
There it sits. It will start to slide left as motivation and industry and ambition and just plain dreaming of a better life goes out the window. What’s the point? Fall asleep behind the glass at a service station, you make The Salary. Put in overtime, start a business, get an extra degree, invent the telephone –- you get The Salary. Only we’re not producing as much. The Brain Surgeon decides it pays just as well to take tickets at the movieplex, and he’s got a lot more free time, plus the movie. Productivity goes down. We produce less, so now the average of what we make goes from fifty grand to forty-three nine. Then thirty-six grand. Then Twenty-One. Then eleven. But everybody’s equal! Equally destitute and equally hopeless.
But I’ll even throw this essential argument away for a minute.
Let’s just agree that everybody makes fifty grand. Forever.
If we went perfectly communist a hundred years ago, when the Big Idea started, that “average salary” would have been closer to five grand a year.
What the hell can you buy today with five grand? Well, quite a lot of hay, some dry goods, perhaps a corset for the missus. But it doesn’t buy anything of value today. What will fifty grand buy in a century? Some crappy new Volvo, perhaps a PlayStation? What about a personal transporter, or a NeuralBoy? You’ll need to make 500 grand to afford those puppies.
Now if you’d just been smart and listened to Adam Smith, he’d tell you: you don’t improve people's lives by narrowing the bell curve. You improve people’s lives by moving it to the right.
Is this so hard to figure out?
I guess so. For some people this is like learning calculus –- in Greek.
If your goal is to pull the money from those goddam rich people, then realize all you can do is raise the poor to the middle. On the other hand, if you don’t give a damn about people richer than you, and everyone does the best they can, then there is no limit to how far right a wealth-creating engine can move the curve. Poor people today make more money than average people did a hundred years ago, and they can buy much cooler stuff with what they make –- like televisions.
So write this on your palm, because there will be a test in the afterlife: if you want to help the poor by taking from the rich, all you can do is take all that they have. Take from the industrious, the ambitious, the clever and the hardworking long enough, and they will go somewhere else and get rich -- again.
And then where are you? Your bell curve gets narrower, and as the gap between rich and poor shrinks, you have a few years, maybe a few decades of smug satisfaction as the whole edifice topples slowly to the left and collapses. The rich get poorer -- good for you – and the poor? Well, simple. They starve to death.
Behold Africa. What an egalitarian paradise! All starve equally.
On the other hand, there is no limit –- again -– no limit, to how far to the right, how rich, capitalism can make even the poor. Some people will do better than others, because some people work harder, or smarter, or longer than others, and some are just plain luckier. That’s life. And if that’s the case, then some people, by definition, will be the rich half, and some will be the poor half. And at the far end of the poor half will be the people we call The Poor. It doesn’t matter how much money they make, or don’t make. The bottom ten or fifteen percent we will define as The Poor. Seventy-five years ago, these poor Americans lived in shacks with dirt floors. Today they live better. Not as well as the rest of us. But better. The rich get richer, and the poor get richer, too.
We can narrow that bell curve, reduce the gap, if we so choose. We can have the bland, benign socialism of, say, Scandanavia. When we rein in the industrious and the inventive, we can narrow the difference between them and the unfortunate. And we will give to the rest of the world…what, exactly? Electric lights? Airplanes? Weather satellites? The non-existent laser in your non-existent DVD player? Computers? Miracle drugs? Carbon-fiber structures? MRI scanners? Where have the vast majority of earth-shaking inventions come from?
These socialists point an accusing, bony finger at America’s huge gap in outcome. They have a point. I point a perfectly toned, buff finger back and ask, where is your genius? Where is your creativity? Where are your movies? Where is your music? Where are your breakthroughs? Where, in fact, is your contribution?
And where is your passion, you poor, passive, grey people? Here we are, working like hell to move the world’s bell curve to the right, and you’re just tagging along for the ride!
Look, I am all for every reasonable, proven method to help the poor. Job training, educational grants – I’ll pay for that. And I’m all for a safety net. It’s the safety hammock I have a problem with.
And if each and every one of us lifted ourselves up by our bootstraps, if every American was a millionaire, then someone would still have to sit at the left side of that curve. In a country club of billionaires, the guy with 900 million is a schmuck. In the richest country in the world, its poorest citizens live better than the vast ocean of human history. And yet there are poor Americans. That’s reality. It’s not fair. History – recent history – shows it can’t be made fair, unless you can make human capability, human creativity, all the same. This is indeed possible. You can crush people’s creativity and intelligence, and steal their hard work. There is the socialist laboratory of Africa, Cuba and the former Soviet Union as models. Go live there for a year before you throw your next Molotov cocktail at a G7 meeting.
I want to be rich. I’m tired of being broke. I’m doing something about it, too. I am working like an animal. I am putting in 12-14 hour days, and weekends, for weeks on end, and no end in sight.
I don’t have to do this. I could get by on a lot less. But see, I have a burning desire. I want to own my own airplane and see the world at 200 knots. That is my dream. And so I make the choice, daily, to work harder than I have to because there are things that I could never, ever have in a socialist society. There are more licensed pilots in Los Angeles county than there are in all of Europe –- and that’s just an example I am familiar with. America is an economic dynamo not because of the big corporations like Boeing, GM and GE. It is productive out of all proportion because there are so many people with so many small businesses trying to make a better life for themselves. LA county, alone, has what I believe would be the 22nd largest economy in the world. People work hard –- and smart -- in America.
I’m one of them. Chances are, you are too. Many places in the world won’t let you work harder to get further. The State throws you a crappy apartment, a crappy car, a crappy job – so enjoy your crappy, hopeless life.
How fair, how compassionate, is that?
I’m doing something else, too. I’m giving up what’s left of my free time, because the fact of the matter is, I’m writing a goddam book, and all you rich folks nodding a few paragraphs back – well, you get those checkbooks ready.
If you think chasing filthy lucre makes you venal and reptilian, just wait till you meet the kind of person who would rather legislate themselves into money than work for it.
Now if the subject of money was the endless plain upon which vast herds of nonsensical ideas flourished and thrived, then government is the watering hole around which all species of dim-witted theories naturally gravitate. Itï¿½s like a trip through Lion Country Safari: weï¿½ve got our faces pressed to the glass in amazement as the Idiotarian ideas thunder by. Look, a Hildebeest! Itï¿½s attacking itï¿½s mate! So letï¿½s just keep the windows rolled all the way up, and move on. This one will be a lot easier.
The second item in the American Trinity is far easier to understand and agree upon, so letï¿½s just all have a moment of silence for all of those men and women who gave their lives, and continue to give their lives, for Freedom.
This, surely, is the single most astonishing American invention: a government whose rights are limited by the people. And as with the first pillar of our Trinity, the idea of limited government causes thin tendrils of smoke to rise from the ears of those on the Far Left. Really give then a healthy dose of this concept and they start to shake and vibrate like Fembots before their heads explode in a shower of sparks.
Now it's not fair to be too hard on these people. After all, we as modern humans go back for several hundred thousand years, and we have always had chieftains and barons and kings to tell us what to do.
A few days ago, I was spending a few moments reading an online poll taken on why the rest of the world hates America. Many people had posted comments, and while all of the answers were entertaining, this one was priceless:
What behaviour can you expect of a country who sought independence because it didn't want to pay taxes?
Gonzalo Arriaga, Finland
Citizens, behold the soul of a slave! Gonzalo loves paying taxes, thinks it is sublime ecstasy to walk down that golden hall, pathetic handful of shriveled potatoes and a scrawny chicken in hand, and lay them ï¿½ eyes averted! ï¿½ at the feet of the master. The more we smile the less he will beat us.
If you want a quick rule of thumb about what kind of person you are dealing with, ask one of these folks lined up at the government feed trough a simple question: whose money is this?
Money is a work token, remember. We get money in exchange for our work, our creativity, our inventiveness, our sweat.
Whose money is this? Whose sweat is this? Whose missed family time is this? Whose inventiveness is this? Whose genius is this? Whose work is this?
You want to know whose money it is? It's your money, that's whose money this is. Your money. Not the King's money. The King never worked a goddam day in his life. Not the Stateï¿½s money. Your money. Your sweat. Your hopes. Your ingenuity.
When we talk about Freedom, that central, mystical pillar of the Trinity, we are not talking about government. We are talking about Freedom, and they are not the same. Democracy is a tool. A republic is a tool. The US Constitution is the greatest tool to unlock human creativity in the history of the world, and I no longer give a flying damn if some people recognize that fact or not.
To date, the Founders have accomplished the unthinkable: they have made freedom idiot-proof.
Democracy, The US Republic, and the Constitution of the United States of America are stainless-steel, lifetime-guaranteed tools to limit government and preserve freedom. Because government is nothing more and nothing less than other people telling you what to do.
Can we all hold hands and say that together?
Government is other peopleï¿½telling youï¿½what to do.
Government is other peopleï¿½telling youï¿½what to do.
Government is other peopleï¿½telling youï¿½what to doï¿½
And let's be clear on one point: many people, perhaps most people in this world, fear freedom. They will never admit it, but it is true. When the lights go out and they look at the ceiling before they go to sleep, the idea of being responsible for themselves, for feeding and clothing and defending and ordering their lives, scares the hell out of most people out there.
Poor, servile Gonzalo, Ward of the State, is not the aberration; he is the norm. We ignore that fact at our own peril, fellow citizens. Everybody wants a little freedom, little bite-sized pieces of freedom, like a cheap toy handed out in the state-sponsored Happy Meal. But real freedom, untrammeled, unrefined, raw self-determination: that requires more than a vague desire. That requires some guts.
Now while some limited government is a necessary evil, and can, on rare occasions, do some good, let us never forget that deeply moving scene at the end of Braveheart, when Mel Gibson looks down at his disemboweled intestines, then out to the Baleful Crowd of Oppressed Peasants, and with his dying breath utters his last word on earth: Bureaucracy!!
If Capitalism is a litmus for optimism, then the idea of State is one for independence. And it really comes down to whether or not you conceive of yourself as a child who needs to be taken care of, or as an adult who can make his own way. Freedom isn't free. If you want the State to feed and clothe you, to provide you a job and health care and housing, don't think that comes without a price. It comes with a hefty price, unbearable in my mind, and I'm not talking about what gets taken out of my wallet, either.
It makes us dependent, and dependence makes us stupid. It makes us stupid and willing Gonzalos, the same money fodder that has fed those in control for millennia. Happy Dependence day, everyone!
There's a scene in Bowling For Columbine where Michael Moore interviews a typically decent and friendly Canadian as he emerges from a health clinic. The poor fellow had, as I recall, some serious injury, and Mssr. Moore wanted to know what it had cost him for treatment.
The man couldn't reply. They hadn't charged him. This took Michael Moore's carefully rehearsed breath away! No charge? You mean, you got that medical attention for free?
That's right, eh.
Cut to beatific look on directors face, as if he had just been handed a clean plate at a Shoney's Breakfast Bar.
Folks, Canadians are great people. They are not a stupid people. So can we not, please, not ever again, call this Free Health Care? It is Pre-paid Health Care. That Canadian fellow paid for that treatment every week, for the past twenty years. It was taken out of every paycheck he made. He paid for that medical care, and much, much more. He paid for it whether he needed it or not. And he not only paid for the doctor, he paid for the bureaucrats and administrators in the National Health Service or whatever it's called. It was not free. It was paid for. Whether he needed it or not. When he has fully recovered, years from now, he will still be paying for it. Every week, from every check. That car or vacation he couldn't afford, got eaten up by health care he paid for but did not need.
So the question is, who better decides what kind of health care you and your family need: you, or Hillary Clinton? I understand that not all poor people can afford health insurance. Again, being a decent sort of fellow beneath my strikingly handsome exterior, I don't mind paying a little extra for Medicare for people who need help. I can even live with my insurance rates being higher to cover the cost of caring for the uninsured at the Emergency Room.
But! What I most assuredly DO NOT need is for someone taking my money to give me a health care system I do not need or want. As my all-time idol P.J. O'Rourke once said, if you think health care is expensive now, just wait till you see what it costs when it's free.
This is a great example of the seduction of the state, because "Free Health Care" sounds like a great deal. It's Caring! It's Healthy! And it's Free!
It's not free. And not only do I object to being told what I need and don't need, I also object to the idea that some dim-witted Student Council dork thinks he knows what's better for me than I do.
P.J. Again: if you think that Public is an altar to worship at, put the word "public" in front of these words and tell me how you feel: Restroom. Swimming pool. Transportation. Here's another: Take the words Decision, Officer, Appointment, and then add the word "political" to the front end and watch them drop in value.
So, look around. Look at how people feel about government, and ask yourself, does this or that person think of themselves as an adult or as a helpless child? Freedom is not for children. Freedom means responsibility. It means making tough decisions yourself. Freedom is not government. Almost all government is the enemy of freedom; the bigger the government, the more powerful the enemy.
The things government does well, the things government should be for, are few and simple. If you want to know what these things are, you will never do better than this:
We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.
Simple. Direct. Perfect. The most wondrous sentence ever written.
So as far as I am concerned, I say: Government, you can do this, this, this and that ï¿½- thatï¿½s it, that's all, shut up and go away. Build us some Interstate Highways and some aircraft carriers and stop hanging around looking eager.
Compare this to the recently unveiled European Union constitution, weighing in at a modest 225 pages (down from the 97,000 pages of accumulated laws and regulations known as the acquis communautaire. ï¿½Acquis Communautaireï¿½, by the way, is French for "we're f---ed." ) The main ï¿½authorï¿½ of this abomination, which reads like a refrigerator repair manual written by a guy who really digs refrigerators, was Valï¿½ry Giscard d'Estaing of France, who in the spirit of restoring Franco-American relations, compared himself to Thomas Jefferson. This is completely unfair to Mr. Giscard d'Estaing; Jefferson would have had to have written for decades, if not centuries, to produce a document this lifeless, meaningless and dense. Oh, and that's if he had, uh, actually been the author of the Constitution, rather than the Declaration of Independence.
As I say, Iï¿½m not an unreasonable fellow. Some government, some restrictions and regulations are good. The FAA actually does a very effective job at giving us the most safe and extensive transportation system in the world. In cases like that, even though the government doesnï¿½t actually produce anything, it does add value in terms of safety and user confidence.
And that's how we should look at every regulation and law. Does it add value, or is it just one of those plastic pancake alien amoebas on Deneva that lands on Spock's back, or yours, its tendrils working their way into your nervous system until you are finally driven mad with pain and commit suicide?
My friend, the irrepressible Kim Du Toit, once asked me what I thought would happen if every government agency had to cut 25% of their regulations ï¿½- they get to decide which ones, of course. I think that would be A Good Idea Generally ï¿½- certainly worth trying on a test basis. How many of these regulations are there to protect you from yourself?
Children need to be protected from themselves. Adults don't need to child-proof the pool. They already know how to swim.
And after all this, after all these creeping intrusions and regulations, we're still the most free people, with the least intrusive government, on the planet. Go figure.
Freedom. We've still got more of it than they do. Reason number two why we rock.
And behind door number three, the easiest of all to get a grip on, that perennial favorite, good old Yankee Ingenuity.
We work hard. Lots of nations work hard. But we work hard ahead of the curve. Hey man, we define the curve. That curve belongs to us.
We are the fast adaptors. If European technology is cutting-edge, ours is bleeding-edge. Whatever it is, it was almost certainly invented here, and even if it wasn't, it still will live or die on how it does in America.
America has horrible, appalling public schools -- they used to be the envy of the world. But our universities are the envy of the world. The sheer amount of money and mental freedom we have ï¿½- starting to see how this Trinity works? ï¿½- means that the science done at US universities is the best science on the planet, and it is produced in mammoth quantities. Those pictures taken of Triton, that distant moon of Neptune on the outer edge of the solar system? They were not snapped by the European Space Agency. Or the vaunted Japanese. Or even the Russians. No sir. Those pictures of Jupiter, and Saturn, and the surface of Mars and Venus and Mercury, were brought to you by some long-haired, badly-dressed geniuses at Cal Tech's Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Some of these guys barely have their driver's licenses. Theyï¿½re the smartest people on the planet, and I stop the car and get out to Kow-Tow every time I go past them on the 210 Freeway. Geniuses. American college kids.
(Capitalism + Freedom) x Ingenuity = Voyager.
Not only are we great scientists, we are great tinkerers. How many ideas ï¿½- airplanes, light bulbs, personal computers, a thousand others ï¿½- had been floating around for decades, or centuries, or millennia, until American ingenuity, that practical, hard-headed garage engineering, got a hold of them and made them actually happen?
I live in two worlds. On one side, the hard side, is aviation. I cannot think offhand of a field (other than Cousin Aeropace) that is as technology and engineering intensive. And with a smattering of exceptions, all of the innovation in experimental aircraft is homegrown. Almost all of the new avionics, the new materials and the breakthrough designs: homegrown.
But the other world I inhabit is that of entertainment, a soft field. And even there, I am surrounded by twenty-first century, cutting-edge, American technological mastery. Every time I fire up my Avid Media Composer, I can count the sixty-odd patents listed on the start-up screen. Those of you unfamiliar with non-linear, computer-based editing may find this hard to believe, but I assure you that we can now do in an hour or two what would have remained impossibly complex twenty years ago with a month of work on tape and film. Avid, Pro Tools, Photoshop ï¿½- all American inventions. Invented by tinkerers. Kids, mostly.
You know, those idiot Americans you hear so much about.
One last story about this American Trinity before we go back out to that bunker in the desert and then home.
Waaaaaaayy back at the top of this journey, I told you about looking for investors, and finding some. So let me tell you about a man who I would love to name, but wonï¿½t.
He is a scientist. A real scientist: a geologist.
While he was a University professor, he and his (business!) partner found a more efficient and more accurate procedure to get some data they, and other geologists, needed frequently. So they formed a company. They went private. They hired Grad students, paid them a fortune relative to any other jobs they could possibly get, and gave them a piece of the company. Brilliant.
So now, this new procedure harnessed all of the work, ingenuity and ambition of a bunch of very bright young men and women whose intellectual passion and economic rewards were pulling in the same direction. Stampede!
They began to become ten, then twenty times more efficient. Accuracy and quality remained superb, because accuracy was in fact their product. And since this was what they had all wanted to do with their lives in the first place, they worked nights, weekends, whatever it took to make this company a success.
And it was a success, a spectacular success, and remains so to this day. The former grad students are set for life, and my friend's father, the scientist, is now a millionaire many times over. I admired and respected him from the very first, back when they were drinking powdered milk to save money. He is a brilliant, hysterically funny, generous and good man. He now owns three houses, and a mountain. He worked for, he earned, every handful of dirt on that mountain. He has made scientific data more accessible, more accurate and more inexpensive than it would have been without him.
And I will say this about him, and about the many other millionaires I have known: he was the first in, and the last out of his office every day, for decades. The boss never leaves work. The Money Fairy did not accidentally stagger into him after a night of heavy drinking. He worked hard, and smart, and deserves every dime.
And he has bailed me out ï¿½- twice ï¿½- and kept my dreams alive. Twice. Without this man, without his genius, his ambition, his hard work and his generosity, you would not be reading this, for I would not be here today. I have taken his investments and failed him. Twice. And he still talks to me.
I guess because when it's all said and done, it's only money. There's more, in the air, where that came from.
Okay, back to the beginning of this Road Trip: The Desert. The Test Site. The Blast Doors. The Bunker.
Trinity. American Power.
But see, you're undoubtedly thinking about Los Alamos, New Mexico. About Atomic bombs. About July 16th, 1945. About Trinity.
But weï¿½re nowhere near Los Alamos. Weï¿½re in California. See, that's what you get for sleeping in the car.
There are people out there who maintain that we are a strong nation only because of our military might.
Thatï¿½s exactly wrong.
Our military might does not make us strong. We have military might because we are strong. It is a by-product of our strength, not the source of it.
Any idiot can build bombs. Our Trinity sits not on some desert sand seared into glass at an abandoned, sad pillar of stones. Itï¿½s in our heads and our hearts, it's in our genes, this beautiful, gorgeous marriage of money, freedom and ingenuity.
We're not here to look at some dark sigil, some monument to destruction. We're builders, we're dreamers. Weï¿½re in the Mojave desert, under cloudless skies split by man-made thunder, a place where people strap themselves into bullets and dare sonic booms to get out of their way.
We're going to space, dammit! And best of all, we're going on our own dime.
The test stand looks exactly like the Viking lander would if you'd built it at Home Depot. Get a little closer though, and the finesse, the genius, is in the details. Anodized gold, remote-controlled, cryogenic valves. Stacks and stacks of huge horizontal gas tanks, like the big babies they fill balloons from, all plumbed together to push enough liquid oxygen to get to where it needs to go.
The bunker at the distant corner of Mojave airport used to store ammunition back in the day. Now it stores TV monitors, a home-made control console, lots of chairs, boxes, pipes, pumps, and an old, battered Jet Ski. Oh, and it stores Rocket Scientists too. About a dozen or so.
I'm not in there with them, though. I see enough of the world on television monitors. I'm crouching down on the top of the bunker, perhaps thirty yards away. If this thing explodes, I won't be able to duck in time, but I can make myself as small a target as possible and still see this with my own eyes.
Foam ï¿½earsï¿½ are handed out. I pretend to screw mine in. I'm already half-deaf from years working in a Miami night club. I want to hear this thing. But that's because I am an idiot.
The Home Depot Vikingï¿½ farts. White cryogenic gas spurts from valves on top, sending a white frozen plume across the desert. Itï¿½s a disappointing sound. Okay, so you have to purge the LOX system, but--.
Another noise, throatier this time. Wisps of super-cooled gas emerge from the back of the combustion chamber, which looks like nothing more than a plain silver coffee can ï¿½- no cool bell-shape, no piping, no sign of any---.
A thirty-foot tongue of white hot flame lights up the midday desert floor ï¿½- did you get that? This is the sound that God makes after polishing off a case of Old Milwaukee and a jumbo sized bag of Cool Ranch Doritos.
It lasts exactly 1.3 seconds. And no, now that I think about it, it's not ï¿½a tongue of white-hot flame.ï¿½ It looks nothing like white-hot flame. White-hot flame would be friendly, compared to this. This is a supersonic plasma spike, that's what it is, the shock diamonds backed up into the chamber likeï¿½well, like shock diamonds. A photograph was taken in broad desert daylight and stopped down to catch the brightness of the exhaust plume!
When you actually see something like this this close, you have one thought, and one thought only, and that is: DO IT AGAIN!!
And they do. Several more times. I watch a few from inside. (And I screw in my ears from now on.) The same procedure, again and again. Test. Inspect. Discuss. Restart.
Every now and then, some distant shriek of tearing canvas causes us all to run outside like little kids following the ice cream truck, as a different company is trying a different rocket engine, about a quarter of a mile away. Itï¿½s not even close to full power out there, and itï¿½s kicking up a huge brown dust plume.
Down on the Home Depot rocket, that little coffee can goes from room temperature to 420 degrees Celsius in a fraction of a second. We peek inside, trying to divine the signs from the burn patterns -ï¿½ the data will take days to decode. They are kind enough to let me inspect it. I nod like I know what I'm looking at.
These are great people, too, the nicest bunch of men and women youï¿½d ever want to meet. Once they manned the halls of Lockheed and North American and Northrop and Grumman. Now theyï¿½re out there, working for peanuts, building rocket motors for themselves, just a little garage-based, mom-and-pop aerospace company called XCOR. They built the EZ-Rocket, flown by Dick Rutan, the man who piloted the Voyager around the world, nonstop, unrefuelled. Dick stepped out of the phone-booth sized afterplane after 9 days; his first words on the ground were "see what free men can do?"
If I hear another soul talk about the death of American ingenuity, I will bring them out here to meet those normal, smiling, somewhat scruffy, every-day rocket scientists at XCOR. I will introduce them to test pilot Dick Rutan, and his brother Burt. Burt Rutan is one of those people whose work you cannot look at without the word genius escaping your lips in a hushed whisper, unconsciously. His company, Scaled Composites, a few doors down, has a working, flying spacecraft.
No, that's not fair. Theyï¿½ve got a working, flying space launch system. And they are going, by God! They are flying into Space. The whole lot of them: XCOR, Scaled, a few others.
This is the Trinity I wanted to show you. Itï¿½s not just aerospace ï¿½- it's all through the very fiber of this magnificent, brilliant country of ours.
These people are using their own money, their own freedom and their own ingenuity to do what governments won't give them the means to do: follow that ultimate dream into and through that deep, delirious, burning blue and out into by-God outer space! Well, if you want to be an astronaut, here in America you can build your own spaceship and you can go.
These people, these private citizens, are the best people there are. Smart, dedicated, disciplined dreamers who have the guts and the savvy to do what all of Europe, or all of China, or Japan, have yet to do: fly in space. XCOR needs about $10 million to build a working space plane: that's about the promotional budget for Legally Blonde 2. No one knows what Burt has spent at Scaled. We only know it wasn't tax money and no one has ever been killed working for him over the past quarter century of tearing out the foundations of what we thought we could do.
I have one thing to say to these people:
ME!! PICK ME!!
So how stands this magnificent experiment, this monument to ambition, hope, freedom and ingenuity on her 227th birthday? How's the old girl holding up after all these years?
Militarily, she is unrivaled. The men and women who serve and defend her today are not only the most capable, disciplined, and effective soldiers in her storied and glorious history; they are the most motivated, decent, flexible, daring and victory-prone troops deployed by any nation at any time. The all-volunteer, citizen soldiers arrayed in the defense of this experiment in self-government have placed the United States in a position that I cannot find a precedent for in history, for they now comprise a force so powerful and effective that the very idea of a direct armed attack upon us has become actually unthinkable. To that extent, we can stand on this Fourth of July and think of a promise we have kept to those young men trapped in the sinking hulls at Pearl Harbor, to those airmen flying through fire and blood to hit their targets at Midway or Frankfurt, to the Marines in the jungles of Tarawa and Guadalcanal, the kids who never came home from beaches at Normandy, and all the others who have fought and died to preserve and strengthen this union, and through whose sacrifice we stand here free and alive and happy today.
The stain of racism, the dagger that nearly pierced our heart, continues to fade, its practitioners in a full-scale rout from a battle that may not yet be over but which has certainly been won. We can look out upon the most ethnically diverse nation on the planet and see not the looming disaster that darkens the horizons of much of Europe, with vast, furious, and growing populations of unassimilated radicals, but rather the serious beginnings of a society where people are indeed judged not by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character. The office floor on which I work is a kaleidoscope of racial, national and sexual identities. They are not only my colleagues, they are my friends. The fact that much remains to be done should not blind us to the really remarkable battles won in the hearts of each of us since Dr. King looked out from the shadow of Lincoln and shared a dream that becomes more real every day. Good for us. That, too, is something to stand proud of; something worth celebrating with fireworks.
Our economy, even when hung over, continues to show a broad and unshakable strength, the envy of the earth. American productivity leads the world, as we do in scientific breakthroughs and world-changing inventions. The fact is, fierce competition does indeed keep us honest. Science and freedom eats superstition and tribalism for breakfast every morning. We don't have time for that nonsense.
Our water and air are far cleaner than they were a generation ago, and what comes out the back of a modern automobile is practically cleaner than what goes in. The black streaks behind departing jetliners, rivers that catch fire, belching brown smokestacks and the little blue-grey puffs of poison floating up in their millions from sputtering tailpipes are a fading memory. We can do even better, and we will.
Of course, our times are defined by a new enemy: a brutal, ruthless, utterly inhuman scourge that targets little girls' birthday parties and office workers and commuters on a bus home from work.
I stand in mute amazement at some of the angry voices I have heard from Europe, who claim as a virtue having put up with terrorism for decades, and who emerge through some sick moral wormhole into a position where fighting back is looked upon with scorn and derision. Get used to it, they say.
Well, here's an Independence Day thought for you cowards and defeatists out there in your millions: to hell with that. Since that horrible morning, I have had the consolation of knowing that thousands of those murdering bastards have had, as their last thought on earth, the realization that maybe 9/11 wasn't such a good idea after all.
And I have also watched in total admiration as a genuine leader stood up to pressure the likes of which I have never seen, and committed this nation to the removal of two of the most odious regimes on earth. With them have gone all sorts of future mischief, and likely, certainly hopefully, we will continue to trample this snake until our enemies realize that resorting to Terror will bring them nothing but the swift and total end to their regimes and ambitions, not to mention their personal death and ruin. The jury is certainly still out, and will remain so for many years to come. But I, for one, feel like a man who has watched history's great projector rewound, with Churchill at Munich standing in for Chamberlain, with Fascism crushed in the cradle, and a horrible, brutal lesson learned ï¿½- by a few, at least -- at long last.
So Happy 227th Birthday, America. Thank you for all you have done for me and my family. You have asked so little of me, and given me so much, that words seem absolutely inadequate. Thank you.
And where ends this Trinity of capitalism, freedom and ingenuity?
Far be it from me to be one of those mindless ideologues who wish to see the United States triumphant for the next century, or 500 years, or a thousand. No, Iï¿½m not that kind of person.
I want to see her triumphant forever. I want that shining city on the granite cliffs to keep that beacon of freedom and hope and optimism alive for as long as we are human, to continue her painful, never-ending, beautiful growth towards a more perfect Union, to be the ideal that we all struggle and fight for each in our own way and according to our own inner lights. I want that lamp to light the way down through history, the scourge of tyrants and torturers in ages yet to come. I want her to remain the polar star of those whose hope, optimism, genius and hard work have lifted, and continue to raise, all of us from the darkness of our animal selves.
And someday, somewhere, I hope and believe those Stars and Stripes will snap and flutter in unimaginably distant skies. I hope and believe that proud parents will sit on bleachers and watch their kids playing little league baseball on brave new worlds we can barely dream of. Right now, at this moment in time, it looks like a great, big, magnificent, empty universe. One day, a day closer to us than July 4th, 1776, I think those wagons will roll again, out to new frontiers, carrying painful lessons learned and yet filled with the identical hope and optimism and confidence that alone define us as a people and a nation.
Some species, somewhere, is going to do it. It might as well be us.