Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Shameless Self-promotion

I have been blogging for a year and a half and have gathered three readers: my two sons and one Blog Follower. While I am pleased with the quality of my readership, it would be nice to expand their numbers. So, in the interest of helping the internet search engines capture the essence of this blog, I offer the following description of the blog's content.

1. Far from being THE WORLD'S BEST BLOG, this humble blog only records my random thoughts on things that cross my path.
3. Little I have to say will INCREASE YOUR SEX APPEAL or help you MAKE MONEY IN YOUR SPARE TIME.
4. While I occasionally pay attention to the business news, this blog will never be an authoritative source for ECONOMIC ANALYSIS or STOCK TIPS or news about BILL GATES and WARREN BUFFETT.
5. I don't have any special insight into the probable success of PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA's policies. Therefore, the blog will seldom address NATIONAL POLITICS or the positions of the DEMOCRATS or REPUBLICANS.
6. As I lost interest in AMERICAN IDOL years ago, I will have nothing to say about the program in my blog.
7. The typical pictures that I post on the blog are objects or scenery that I observe during my weekend walks. I doubt that I will ever have pictures of BEAUTIFUL WOMEN or EXOTIC LOCATIONS.
8. I have no interest in or knowledge of INTERNET GAMBLING. The blog will be silent on this topic.

That should do it.

Monday, June 29, 2009

Miss the Mississippi

I am reading Richard Bissell's novel High Water. The book's setting is a towboat that is shoving coal barges up the Mississippi River in the late 1940s. Some of Bissell's descriptions brought back my youthful memories of the river. Here is his description of the river smell.

I went out and looked at the river and it was cold and gray and the fog had lifted for a while but settled down into a cold drizzle, so the islands over across the way looked hazy and pale. The decks were wet and had a dull shine to them and the river smell was strong. Unless you have ever smelled the Mississippi River you don't know what that means and no use to attempt an explanation, but she smells like islands and willows and railroad ties and mud and she smells like Minnesota and Illinois and Wisconsin and Iowa and parts of Missouri, all mixed up together. Then she smells like under a bridge, or sitting in a duck blind, and like old overalls and marine engines, and like a retriever when he is crouched shivering in the boat on the way home. She also smells like wet oilskins, coal smoke, dead catfish and buffalo and gar pike, like rotten logs and hepaticas on the hillsides, and like the whiskey breath of an old deck hand who can't quite remember where he come from.

I can't wait to visit Davenport, Iowa this summer and fill my lungs with river air. (I mean the invigorating air at the Iowa riverbank, of course -- not the stinky Illinois-side air.)

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Self Help

I read self-help books from time to time, but rarely discover any insight of lasting importance. All the books repeat the same slogans: Overcome fear with action! Expand your comfort zone! Take responsibility for your life! Think positively! Choose affirming friends! Be generous! Embrace spirituality!

The slogans sound good but ultimately leave you right where you started.

Susan Jeffers wrote a self-help book with the catchy title Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway. The book is typical of the genre. The perky, upbeat prose makes you want to shout, "Yes, I can handle it! I choose life and love!" Then you calm down and return to your same old mopey ways.

However, Jeffers offered one example in her book that made me think. Using a negative illustration, she described how to make poor decisions using the No-Win Model:

1. Listen to your mind drive you crazy.
2. Paralyze yourself with anxiety as you try to predict the future.
3. Don't trust your impulses -- listen to what everyone else thinks.
4. Feel the heaviness of having to make a decision.

1. Create anxiety by trying to control the outcome.
2. Blame someone else if it doesn't work out as you pictured.
3. If it does work out, keep wondering if it would have been better the other way.
4. Don't correct if the decision is "wrong" -- you have too much invested.

I have applied the No-Win Model myself and can vouch for the lousy results. Here is my own self-help slogan: Do the opposite of the No-Win Model!

Blue Ribbon Flower Garden

Today I took a walk through the affluent neighborhoods to the west. After all of the rain the past three weeks, the lawns and flowers are luxuriant.

I took pictures as I walked. My favorite flower garden, shown above, was a beautiful raised bed with flowers arranged around a big gray volcanic rock. I award this garden the blue ribbon.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

The next dozen years

I just finished reading The Next 100 Years by George Friedman, the founder of STRATFOR, a leading private intelligence and forecasting company. (See www.stratfor.com for analysis of the current geopolitical scene.) Friedman lays out the broad economic, political, and military trends that will shape the twenty-first century. Here is what he had to say about America's foreign and domestic challenges over the next dozen years.


America's ultimate aim is to prevent the emergence of any dominant power in Eurasia. Therefore, America will conduct numerous interventions, with the minimum force required, to maintain the Eurasian balance of power. If a regional power threatens to dominate, America will work to thwart or destabilize it.

The current U.S.-Islamist wars in Afghanistan and Iraq are part of this destabilizing effort and are aimed at keeping a large, powerful Islamic state from emerging. America does not need to win such wars. It is sufficient to keep things stirred up and have Islamic countries in conflict with each other. Friedman thinks that American concerns with the Islamic countries will recede over the next dozen years.

U.S.-China relations are always in the news, but Friedman thinks that China will fragment and decline by 2020. The recent Chinese economic growth is unsustainable and will lead to a severe and lengthy business cycle correction, similar to the Japanese economic crisis of the 1990s. Economic problems will lead to political instability. As unemployment rises, Beijing will struggle to balance the interests of the prosperous coastal regions and the poor interior regions.

Russia will use its energy wealth to rebuild its military strength and then push to form a defensive buffer zone on its western border during the next five years. Russia will be anxious to make its move as soon as possible, because its population is declining and it may not be able to field a substantial army in the future. (I noticed an Associate Press article two days ago that stated: "A new study by an international team of public health researchers documents the devastating impact of alcohol abuse on Russia — showing that drinking caused more than half of deaths among Russians aged 15 to 54 in the turbulent era following the Soviet collapse. The 52 percent figure compares to estimates that less than 4 percent of deaths worldwide are caused by alcohol abuse, according to the study by Russian, British and French researchers published in Friday's edition of the British medical journal The Lancet.")

A partial restoration of the old Soviet sphere of influence will soon occur as Belarus and Ukraine are brought back under Russia control. Russia's re-emergence as a regional power will alarm the Baltic countries (Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania) and Poland, which are now members of NATO. America will provide aid and military technology to these Eastern Europe countries to help them resist the Russian pressure. The Russians will counter this by leaning on Germany. Germany, dependent on Russian natural gas, will impede any coordinated NATO response. A new Cold War will begin. However, Friedman thinks that the Russians will be unable to sustain their activities and that their military will collapse by 2020.

With both China and Russia in crisis by 2020, new regional powers within Eurasia will rise to prominence. Friedman thinks that Turkey and Japan will expand their military power. Poland, fortified by military technology received from America during the conflict with Russia, will also become a regional power. Peering deeper into his crystal ball, Friedman forecasts a world war between America and the coalition of Japan and Turkey by 2050.


Friedman sees demographics driving most of America's domestic challenges. By 2020 America will have a labor shortage and need to increase immigration. This will lead to social tensions and set the stage for future conflicts with Mexico as the population of the Southwestern states becomes predominantly Hispanic.

By 2020, a large group of the Baby Boomers will have entered their seventies. Most affluent Baby Boomers will fund their retirements by cashing in their stock and real estate. In particular, 401K retirement plans require that distributions start at age seventy and a half. But the succeeding generation of workers (i.e., my sons' generation) will be smaller and will not be able to afford all this stock and real estate. Stock and real estate prices will tumble.

Improvident Baby Boomers with no retirement savings whatsoever will need to be cared for somehow. Taxes will surely skyrocket.


George Friedman's weekly geopolitical analysis articles on his STRATFOR website always strike me as thoughtful and balanced. It was disconcerting to find him forecasting so many world conflicts and calamities between now and 2020. And I'm sure we can expect a few pandemics, hurricanes, and terrorist attacks as well. It is easy to feel overwhelmed when thinking about all these dangers.

The New Testament warns against falling under the oppression of "the cares of this world." I probably subject myself to needless anxiety as a result of my curiosity about emerging geopolitical trends.

Showing Off

During his band concert last week, my son the electric bassist (and fiddler and composer) was unexpectedly flung into the spotlight. Midway through the set, the singer stopped to introduce each band member and then had each perform an impromptu solo. The guitarist, an experienced player, was introduced first and dazzled, or at least stupefied, the crowd with time-honored rock guitar gyrations: fast and repetitive licks, volume that steadily rose like the sound of a jet engine winding up for takeoff, and a final frantic run up the scale to the sonic range favored by attacking birds of prey. The crowd reacted uproariously. The guitarist finished and took a bow.

I glanced at my son. He was positioned at the right side of the stage, between the drummer and the keyboard player. My son appeared distracted. His bass playing looked steady but his fingering didn't seem as crisp as usual.

The drummer was the next one to solo. After his introduction, he began fervently pounding and battering his drum kit. The crowd howled with delight. He finished with a great clatter and set his drumsticks aside. I noticed that my son looked concerned.

Now only the keyboard player and my son were left playing. The keyboard player, a veteran musician closer to my age than my son's age, got his introduction and took his turn in the spotlight. His solo following the basic form used by the guitarist -- faster and faster, louder and louder, higher and higher. He showed off to the crowd as his arpeggios ratcheted up to a stratospheric finish. By now, my son's face showed unmistakable distress. His bass playing, barely distinguishable under the noise of the crowd, was robotic and unfocused.

Now the bassist, like the cheese in the nursery rhyme, stood alone. The singer yelled out my son's name. Wearing an expression of desperation, my son cranked up the volume and added a few extra frills and twitches to his simple bass lick. But it was clear that he had nothing prepared. The well was dry, the car had no gas, the pie had no filling. The crowd quieted in anticipation for the fireworks to erupt from my son's bass, but the fireworks never came. My son labored on, doggedly repeating his lick to avoid freezing up entirely. He gave imploring looks to the other musicians to join in and rescue him from this interminable solo of doom. The crowd grew restless. I heard a few conversations start up amidst the tables in front of me. Many more painful seconds passed before the singer threw in the towel and gave the signal for everyone to resume playing and bring the song to an overdue close. There was scattered polite applause from the crowd.

This was a valuable learning experience for my son. A rock musician needs to be able to show off.

After some post-concert commiseration, I advised my son to memorize a generic bass solo -- a flashy number with lots of mindless rhythmic noise and flashy fingerboard sliding. No subtlety, no wit. And the bass needs to roar to a climax at the top of its range, like a Gatling gun firing in falsetto.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Kissless at the light rail station

I stayed for the full 10 minutes but never got kissed. Do you suppose that the Regional Transportation District expected me to supply my own woman?

Saturday, June 20, 2009

The Lilac Ghost

During my two-hour walk to the library today, I kept an eye out for blog photograph subjects. (In accordance with the practice of modern media, I too substitute images whenever I am empty of ideas.) Unfortunately, nothing of interest was happening in the visual realm. The olfactory realm was a different story. Cool breezes, freshened by intermittent light rain sprinkles, carried the odors of new-mown lawns, of damp weeds beside the hike-and-bike trail, and of hotdogs grilling at the park.

The most striking odor I encountered was that of lilac blossoms. I was three blocks away from the library when I was suddenly enveloped in a cloud of lilac fragrance. I stopped and looked all around. There were no lilac bushes in sight. Where was the fragrance coming from? I was baffled.

A fanciful explanation was that I was in the presence of a ghost. The fragrance of lilacs has long been linked to death and apparitions. After the battle of Gettysburg, townspeople used lilac water to cover up the stench of death. It was reported that later ghostly sightings around the battlefield area were accompanied by the smell of lilacs. Perhaps I had been visited by the ghost of a Civil War soldier who had lost his way.

The most famous literary association of lilacs with death, of course, is Walt Whitman's elegy When Lilacs Last in the Door-yard Bloom'd, which commemorates Lincoln's death and the period of mourning as Lincoln's coffin was carried back to Illinois on the funeral train. Here are the pertinent lilac stanzas. (I recommend reading the entire poem.)


WHEN lilacs last in the door-yard bloom’d,
And the great star early droop’d in the western sky in the night,
I mourn’d—and yet shall mourn with ever-returning spring.

O ever-returning spring! trinity sure to me you bring;
Lilac blooming perennial, and drooping star in the west,
And thought of him I love.


In the door-yard fronting an old farm-house, near the white-wash’d palings,
Stands the lilac bush, tall-growing, with heart-shaped leaves of rich green,
With many a pointed blossom, rising, delicate, with the perfume strong I love,
With every leaf a miracle......and from this bush in the door-yard,
With delicate-color’d blossoms, and heart-shaped leaves of rich green,
A sprig, with its flower, I break.


Coffin that passes through lanes and streets,
Through day and night, with the great cloud darkening the land,
With the pomp of the inloop’d flags, with the cities draped in black,
With the show of the States themselves, as of crape-veil’d women, standing,
With processions long and winding, and the flambeaus of the night,
With the countless torches lit—with the silent sea of faces, and the unbared heads,
With the waiting depot, the arriving coffin, and the sombre faces,
With dirges through the night, with the thousand voices rising strong and solemn;
With all the mournful voices of the dirges, pour’d around the coffin,
The dim-lit churches and the shuddering organs—Where amid these you journey,
With the tolling, tolling bells’ perpetual clang;
Here! coffin that slowly passes,
I give you my sprig of lilac.


(Nor for you, for one, alone;
Blossoms and branches green to coffins all I bring:
For fresh as the morning—thus would I carol a song for you, O sane and sacred death.

All over bouquets of roses,
O death! I cover you over with roses and early lilies;
But mostly and now the lilac that blooms the first,
Copious, I break, I break the sprigs from the bushes;
With loaded arms I come, pouring for you,
For you, and the coffins all of you, O death.)

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Fear Not

The Secret Service agents escorted an old Asian man wearing a baggy seersucker suit into the conference room. The President shook the old man's hand and then announced to his Cabinet. "Professor Cha has been kind enough to come down from Harvard to share what astrophysicists understand about the present situation. You've all seen the wild speculations in the news. Professor Cha told me that he can provide some words of assurance."

"Thank you for inviting me, Mr. President," the professor said in a soft voice. He gave a smile and a stiff bow – little more than a hunch of the shoulders – to each of the Cabinet members. "I cannot speak for all astrophysicists. There is much debate and our grasp of the detailed physics is incomplete. But I will give you the current majority opinion. In doing so, I can address certain prevalent fears." He adopted a lecturing posture with clasped hands and elevated chin. "There is a faint glow in the constellation Orion, right above the stars that are said to represent Orion's belt. The glow is energy in the visible spectrum produced by a quantum fluctuation. I assume that you familiar with the quantum fluctuation popularly known as the Big Bang?"

The President laughed and said, "Are you telling us that we have a new Big Bang on our hands?"

The professor appeared flustered. "No, sir. I am not saying that. This local quantum fluctuation is no more than a pilot light in comparison. It appeared in a formerly empty region of space one half light-year from us. The glow will appear to spread and brighten with time. In a month you will be able to read a newspaper by its light at midnight. Greater intensities will follow."

The Secretary of Homeland Security asked, "This sounds like a concern. Professor Cha, what preparations would you advise?"

"During the next several weeks people will naturally begin wearing hats and sunglasses. I would not advise governmental preparations." The professor took up his lecturing posture again. "The quantum fluctuation is ejecting a wave of charged plasma at a velocity of two thirds the speed of light."

The President interrupted, "You didn't mention anything about plasma when we spoke yesterday. So, let's see, you are saying that this plasma will reach us in nine months. Am I figuring correctly?"

"Yes, Mr. President."

The Cabinet members looked at each other. The Secretary of the Interior said, "What happens then? Something like the Northern Lights?"

The professor hesitated. "An excellent question. My opinion is that the effect of the charged plasma will be similar in kind to Northern Lights but different in scale. I mentioned earlier that I hoped to address some fears. Let me try to do so now. We should not fear nuclear proliferation nor problems with funding Medicare. Depletion of fossil fuels does not matter. Global warming, at least the kind predicted by former Vice President Al Gore, should no longer be a concern."

The Secretary of State interjected, "You have a weakness for theatrics, Professor. Please speak plainly."

The professor reached inside his suit coat, causing heightened vigilance on the part of the Secret Service agents. He brought out a small black Bible and leafed through it to the end.

"Do you intend to give us a sermon, Professor?" said the Secretary of State. A few of the Cabinet members chuckled.

"Madam Secretary, I will read you something that describes our situation as plainly as I know how. Some consider what I am about to read as foolishness; others consider it extravagant metaphor. Soon it will be understood as an accurate scientific description of how the plasma shock wave will affect the Earth."

He read slowly and carefully: "The sky receded like a scroll, rolling up, and every mountain and island was removed from its place."

Saturday, June 13, 2009

My untended garden

My flower garden has columbines and irises. Both are perennials that thrive without any help from me.

The columbines are just appearing. The blue iris blossoms have almost all wilted away. I will miss smelling their grape Kool-Aid perfume every morning before leaving for work. (I'm trusting an ancient olfactory memory of Kool-Aid here. I haven't had a sip of grape Kool-Aid in twenty years.)

In the interest of blog accuracy, I turned to the dictionary to confirm the spelling of "irises." Between the entries spanning Iranian and irrelievable, I happened upon a 2-dollar bill that I had tucked between the dictionary pages long ago. You may wonder which presidential likeness is found on the 2-dollar bill. The answer is Jefferson. The other side of the bill shows the Continental Congress and commemorates the signing of the Declaration of Independence.

The guarded garden

Across the street from the library is a corner house with an elaborate flower garden, which stretches across the entire front yard. The owners have put great care into its terraces and color scheme. I often stop and admire the garden after I leave the library.

I tend to think of flower gardens more in terms of sanctuary and private contemplation rather than public display. Therefore, I would be inclined to hide my flower garden away in the back yard.

The idea of the garden sanctuary has a rich history. What would a British royal estate be without its well-groomed gardens? No Moorish Sultan worth his salt would be without a cool garden to refresh himself after business at the court or exertions at the harem. Asian potentates were fond of retiring to the quiet of their palace gardens. And all of these gardens hark back to the original garden, the Garden of Eden, which is described as a sheltered place of abundance and beauty.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Zimmermann's Cafe

If you crave a Starbucks latte in the morning, you would have felt at home in Leipzig in the late 1600s and early 1700s, surrounded by hordes of caffeinated Germans at Gottfried Zimmermann's coffee house.

Here is a description from the liner notes of a CD by the Baroque ensemble Cafe Zimmermann, which takes its name from this renowned center of Leipzig society:

"It was a meeting place for the town's burghers, and also frequented by many students and tradesmen. From 1723 onwards it was also the home of the 'collegium musicum' founded by Telemann in 1702, a part-time orchestra made up of young musicians, whose ranks were sometimes swelled by famous instrumentalists and singers passing through Leipzig. The ensemble could number up to forty performers. It is difficult for us to imagine what an upheaval this type of practice represented. The collegium musicam did not perform at court, nor in church; other musical institutions, made up of the same musicians, looked after these places. It played in a coffee house, accessible to all Herr Zimmermann's customers, male or female.

Johann Sebastian Bach became director of the collegium musicum at Zimmermann's in March 1729. This activity came on top of all those he already assumed in Leipzig, where he had taken up the duties of Kantor of the Thomaskirche in 1723."

Bach was 44 years old in 1729. His two oldest sons, Wilhelm Friedemann and Carl Philip Emanuel, already splendid musicians in their own right, were 19 and 15. The Bach family's standard of musicianship and dazzling improvisation invigorated the collegium musicum and soon attracted an enthusiastic following. Celebrated players came from all over Germany to take part in collegium musicum concerts.

The ideal of Zimmermann's coffee house as a hub of popular culture has enormous appeal to me. No disrespect to Versailles, the beach at Honolulu, or San Diego's Balboa Park; but I'd rather be in Zimmermann's coffee house in 1729 drinking a cup of coffee and listening to energetic young instrumentalists under the direction of the great Johann Sebastian Bach.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Debut at the Hard Rock Cafe

Yesterday, after many weeks of rehearsal, my younger son had his first professional gig with his new band.

My son and the three other players had auditioned and been hired by a local singer/songwriter. The singer had already cut a CD album with Los Angeles session players (slated for a September 2009 release) and needed a touring band for concert shows. The touring band's job was to faithfully reproduce the sounds on the CD.

When I met the singer's manager after the show, she told me that the criteria for selecting band members had been musical ability and character. She wanted players who could hit the right notes and not be a headache on the road. No jerks, dopers, or flaky free spirits need apply. Essentially, the singer wanted reliable session players that could travel -- musical consultants more or less. My son was the only novice hired. The other players were older and had experience as working musicians.

This debut gig followed a series of grueling rehearsals scattered over the past few months. My son (bass guitar) and the other players (keyboards, lead guitar, and drums) had to memorize the arrangements off the CD album. Nothing was written out. The arrangements were challenging, incorporating lots of syncopation and rhythmic shifts. Individual songs drew upon rock, jazz, blues, or reggae styles. (Right before the show, the keyboard player assured me that they had gotten past their recent "train wreck" rehearsals and were feeling fairly confident.)

I got to watch the show from the second-story seating reserved for friends and family of the band. This favored treatment by the Hard Rock Cafe, plus their complimentary chocolate milkshake, delighted me.

Time for the show! The players bounded onto the little stage at the back of the restaurant. Each player was dressed in black pants and a black tee shirt. With a bit of white makeup they could have looked like a troupe of mimes. Then the singer made his appearance. He looked dapper in a sport jacket and fedora.

The band immediately launched into an uptempo pop song. The singer's tenor voice was strong and clear; his gestures commanded attention. He was definitely a pro.

I instantly noticed the clarity of the music. The arrangement gave each instrument its place in the sonic spectrum; I had no trouble following what each player was doing. The piano and the lead guitar didn't step on each other or blur the lyrics. My son's bass guitar notes came through clean and musical, not the dull fub-fub-fub booming you often hear from rock bass guitarists. I was impressed by how perfectly in tune he played. You couldn't tell that he was playing a fretless bass, a temperamental instrument that requires precise fingering; otherwise, it can make a sloppy growling sound. The technique that my son acquired from years of practicing fingerboard position shifts on the violin apparently carried over to his bass playing.

The players communicated well. The way that they interacted reminded me of how members of a chamber ensemble watch each other as they play classical music. I saw my son flash a smile now and then as he smartly cued the keyboard player or the drummer.

I had two favorite songs in the hour-long concert. One was a rhythm and blues number, like something the Four Tops might have done forty years ago. My son got to kick it off with a repeated bass figure: dada-dum-da dada-dum-da. It was a hoot seeing a skinny white kid laying down a Motown groove with such assurance. My second favorite was the closing song. My son got to play the violin for the first eight bars to approximate the string quartet introduction to the CD version of the song. He double-stopped the first and second violin parts of the string quartet and the crowd loved it.

A fine show and a promising beginning!

Saturday, June 6, 2009

Walking Adventures

My walk to the library today was full of adventures.

I was traveling along a paved hike-and-bike trail bordering a creek. The creek was at flood stage, as shown above. The trail went under a bridge at one point and was submerged under eighteen inches of water overflow from the creek. Fortunately, there were large rocks bordering the trail; and I was able to make my way under the bridge hopping from rock to rock like a mountain goat, with nary a splash or twisted ankle.

I was the only walker on the trail. Perhaps others of the pedestrian persuasion were intimidated by the bicyclists, who would typically yell "On your left!" and then hurtle past at top speed, sometimes almost grazing the walker. Today I flinched several times as bicycles came too close. I thought about bringing a baseball bat along with me on the trail. When the bicyclists yelled "On your left!", I could yell "Baseball bat!" and see if they gave me a wider berth.

Poetry of Rumi

At the library I browsed through a volume of the ecstatic Persian poetry of Jalal ad-Din Muhammad Rumi (1207-1273). Rumi's love poetry is generally too windy for my taste, but I enjoyed his poems that expressed a quiet, reflective spirit. Here are two.

For years, copying other people, I tried to know myself.
From within, I couldn't decide what to do.
Unable to see, I heard my name being called.
Then I walked outside.

The breeze at dawn has secrets to tell you.
- Don't go back to sleep.
You must ask for what you really want.
- Don't go back to sleep.
People are going back and forth across the doorsill where the two worlds touch.
The door is round and open.
- Don't go back to sleep.


Come to the orchard in Spring.
There is light and wine and sweethearts in the pomegranate flowers.

If you do not come, these do not matter.
If you do come, these do not matter.

Monday, June 1, 2009

The Rise and Decline of Nations

I just finished reading The Rise and Decline of Nations by Mancur Olson. He makes the argument that national growth rates are harmed by the increase in special-interest organizations. These organizations include labor unions, professional organizations (e.g., the American Medical Association), price-fixing industrial cartels, monopolies (e.g., Microsoft), congressional lobbyists, and so forth. Olson summarized his thesis as follows:

Few organizations for collective action in stable societies will dissolve, so these societies accumulate special-interest organizations and collusions over time. These organizations, at least if they are small in relation to the society, have little incentive to make their societies more productive, but they have powerful incentives to seek a larger share of the national income even when this greatly reduces social output. The barriers to entry established by these distributional coalitions and their slowness in making decisions and mutually efficient bargains reduces an economy's dynamism and rate of growth. Distributional coalitions also increase regulation, bureaucracy, and political intervention in markets.

If the argument is correct, it follows that countries whose distributional coalitions have been emasculated or abolished by totalitarian government or foreign occupation should grow relatively quickly after a free and stable legal order is established. This can explain the postwar "economic miracles" in the nations that were defeated in World War II, particularly those in Japan and West Germany.

The logic of the argument implies that countries that have had democratic freedom of organization without upheaval or invasion the longest will suffer the most from growth-repressing organizations and combinations. This helps to explain why Great Britain, the major nation with the longest immunity from dictatorship, invasion, and revolution, has had in this century a lower rate of growth than other large, developed democracies.

Olson thesis is that a country's success and stability make it susceptible to decline as self-interest organizations get entrenched over time and gum up the works, hindering the country's innovation and economic growth.

Government becomes increasingly entangled with special interests. Historically, the Republican party has been associated with corporate special interests and the Democrat party has been associated with union special interests, although neither party is fastidious about where its funding comes from. Moreover, individual congress members routinely put pork-barrel legislation for their home districts ahead of the national interest. Consequently, no help in clearing away the choking vines of special interests can be expected from either the Republicans or the Democrats.

A group that organizes to grab a preferential piece of the national pie is analogous to a "good old boys" network within a company, The "good old boys" band together to grab power and squeeze out competition. Waste and corruption often result. President Eisenhower warned of the collusion dangers inherent in the "military-industrial complex". Today, he would probably enlarge this and say the "military-industrial-congressional complex", because defense contractors have gotten very adept at lobbying congress.

Straining for a happy ending to his book, Olson offered a half-hearted utopian solution: "A society might choose the most obvious and far-reaching remedy: it might simply repeal all special-interest legislation or regulation and at the same time apply rigorous anti-trust laws to every cartel or collusion that used its power to obtain prices or wages above competitive levels. A society could in this way keep distributional coalitions from doing any substantial damage. This remedy does not require any major expenditure of resources: intelligent and resolute public policies would by themselves bring great increases in prosperity and social performance. So sweeping a change in ideas and policies is extraordinarily unlikely."

I am not hopeful. It is human nature to promote one's tribe -- the AFL/CIO, the Mafia, the AMA, the banking industry, or whatever -- at the expense of the multitude. Until human nature is purified, nations will continue to rise, gradually be choked by special interests, and then decline.

So, until the U.S. decline becomes outright collapse, I will continue taking my cut of the defense industry's astonishing share of the GNP. And my AARP representatives will continue to lobby for my generation to receive an unsustainable portion of the nation's future wealth to pay for our Social Security and Medicare. It's the American way.