Middlemen

Thirty-four years ago today I got off a bus in the middle of the night and stood on yellow footprints at the Marine Corps Recruit Depot to begin boot camp. It was a different world. The Berlin Wall had come down, the Soviet Union had effectively surrendered (though it would take another year or so to disintegrate) and we won the Cold War. The world was safe for democracy and to this former Boy Scout and former high school athlete, the rules were clear: Work hard, be faithful to your beliefs, execute your duty to society to help the people who can’t help themselves, and leave the world better than you found it. The rest – money, love, glory, meaning – would take care of itself if you took care of your responsibilities. I was so naive.

Before I would leave boot camp, Saddam Hussein would invade Kuwait. Most of the members of my recruit training company would end up in the Saudi desert as part of the largest, most potent mercenary force ever assembled to protect the oil from the tyrant. And so it would go for the next decade as the U.S.A. would bob and weave, dancing in the geopolitical ring, never really getting hit, never really doing anything, trying to police the world on style points. Free trade leads to nation building leads to globalization; a network of interdependent economies all too fragile to stand alone, and therefore too fragile to start a war. A lone super power protecting the seas and securing the economy. Stability at any price.

Which was fine because the price was cheap in the short run. It would eventually result in two financial bubbles in ten years, the completion of a decades-long dismantling of domestic manufacturing and with it union protection and the American dream for most of the blue collar labor force, to be replaced by the desperate lives in decrepit landscapes devoid of meaning or opportunity to escape that would prove fertile ground for prescription drugs and fully-automated austere capitalism. But that, too is still in the future. In the middle 90s technology was still going to invigorate and accelerate the American dream. We were going to ride the Information Superhighway into a Utopia of energy independence, high-paying, high-skill jobs for everyone, and a new era of building and improving that was going to more than fill in for the manufacturing jobs that went overseas. And I was on the front line.

Exceptional test scores, a straight edge youth, and years of typing classes put me at the front of the line for the kind of technical training that never fills it’s quotas and while most of my boot camp cohort shipped off to the Arabian desert, I was in the Mojave learning electronics and radios and watching the other desert on CNN. As things got more and more heated, we moved to an accelerated program; the scuttlebutt was we’d be needed to fill in for casualties, so we learned and studied and learned some more – 10 hours a day, six days a week. And then as Thanksgiving faded and Christmas approached, we started packing pallets of supplies bound for the Gulf on our off days. On the Sunday starting the week before Christmas four of us spent six hours stacking boxes of body bags onto big metal shipping pallets so they could be loaded onto a cargo plane. A week later I was back home hanging out with my high school friends. A year later I was done training. None of the doomsday scenarios happened, and we got a ribbon for loading body bags (among other things).

I was on my way to being one of the people who built the Internet and for the rest of the decade, I did everything from pulling cable and punching down circuits to designing systems and presenting to Generals. I was flush with duty, but love never worked out, faith waned, and the meaning was hard to sustain. By the time my enlistment was over, I wasn’t sure how much we’d helped those who needed helping or if we’d left the world a better place, but I didn’t know why.

Looking back now it would be easy to blame the extremist and fundamentalist currents that were already blowing through domestic politics, but I just as I knew something was wrong, I knew that wasn’t the cause. The world is rife with assholes and even the most lavish of assholes is merely a symptom of societal sickness, not the cause. That cause is the rise of the middlemen.

For 34 years I’ve worked hard to do the right thing, to do right by people, to leave the world better than I found it but when I step back and look at the whole process, there has always been someone who didn’t know how, didn’t know what, or couldn’t create the solution standing between the person doing the work and the person who’s world was supposed to be getting better. A person whose sole purpose was to take what I did and give it to who I did it for, while getting a cut (often times the biggest part) of the profit. Sometimes they hid behind the bureaucracy, sometimes they worked hard to make everyone feel like they were contributing, but these days they seem to have dropped the act and just demand their cut like they are entitled to it by divine right. They don’t have a message or an idea that they offer up as a path to a better tomorrow. They don’t have a plan or a vision for what their Utopia looks like so people can choose. They don’t want competition. Their ideology is simply that they are entitled to get a cut and since they are empowered to make sure they do, they will.

So, when you look around, as I do, at all the ways that we didn’t get the Utopia we were promised when the Cold War ended, look for the middlemen. They’re the ones collecting the cover charge for Armageddon.


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