Andy Stone: A Stone’s Throw
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO, Colorado
Everybody loves competition, right?
Whether you’re talking business, sports, reality TV or evolution, competition’s the answer.
Survival of the fittest took us from single-cell critters in the primordial stew to our current position as amazing creatures of incomprehensible complexity.
Competition improves the breed.
Every businessman worth a damn will stand up on his hind legs and proclaim his devotion to competition.
It’s the American credo.
Of course, in reality, all those businessmen really believe that competition is the best possible thing for their competitors.
For themselves, they’d prefer a nice, little monopoly. Or, better yet, a nice, big monopoly.
A personal case in point: During the years when I was running The Aspen Times, I often said publicly how wonderful it was to have two daily newspapers in Aspen – how both papers were better because of the competition and how the town, as a result, benefited.
That was true, as far as it went. But I secretly yearned for a nice one-newspaper town where that one paper – my paper, needless to say – could suck up all the advertising money and roll around in profit-fattened glee.
“You don’t like our newspaper? Advertise with the competition.” Hee, hee, hee.
It would have been sweet.
And that, quite naturally, brings us to the end of the Cold War, the collapse of the Soviet Union and the eternal question: “What’s wrong with America today?”
The answer: No competition.
This country’s great leap forward on all fronts – financial, scientific, cultural, socio-economic – came when we clawed our way to the top of the global heap through vigorous competition.
First came the real battle: World War II. That was competition in its most basic form: life and death, bloody slaughter, a fight against ruthless enemies who would have destroyed everything we loved.
That war was over surprisingly quickly by today’s standards – less than four years separated Pearl Harbor from Hiroshima.
But, as soon as the hot war ended, the Cold War began.
And then we needed to compete in more civilized ways. It wasn’t so much death and destruction – although there was certainly some of that – as it was competition in the business sense: trying to win customers.
We were in a global battle between competing political philosophies.
And if the communist philosophy was based on a lie, we had to make that lie clear – not by screaming, “You lie!” but by proving that we really were better.
Like a battle between McDonald’s and Greasy Harry’s Road-Kill on a Bun.
Over the decades of Cold War competition, we made a true effort to put our best foot and our best face forward.
Certainly, our failures were manifest and disgraceful – primarily our support for right-wing dictators whose only commendable quality (to our government) was their willingness to suppress left-wing popular movements.
But in the Cold War years, we raised our nation’s (and the world’s) standard of living. We reduced economic inequality, landed on the moon, built the interstate highway system and supported the arts. We expanded public education, sent millions to college and created great industries while paying workers a fair wage.
More important, we spoke out for human rights, fought against torture and made great progress toward healing our greatest national shame – the stain of racism that was the legacy of slavery.
We aspired to be that “shining city on the hill” – and, more than just aspiring, we actually tried to live up to that image.
To jump back for a moment to our original analogy, we were a business competing in the world market by offering a better product and better customer service.
But then – darn the luck – we won. Our competitor overextended trying to keep up. Our own advertising campaign might have been a bit misleading, but the competitor’s ads were ludicrous, absurd and outright unbelievable. And the competitor’s product was, well, dreadful.
And so, like, for example, the American Motors Corp., our Cold War competitor fell apart and faded away, despite assorted mergers, dissolutions, rebrandings and a few dysfunctional bits and pieces scattered around the world.
But now, without the benefits that competition brings, the United States – a monopoly – can give up all the fancy doo-dads, the trimming and the “customer service.”
It’s like calling United Airlines and trying to get a good airfare, good service – hell, it’s like calling United Airlines and trying to get someone to answer the damn phone.
Once upon a time, you’d call United and get one of those enraging recordings that insisted, “Your call is very important to us,” even while they clearly didn’t think the call was important enough for them to pay someone to answer it.
But now you get a recording that says, “Please call back later,” and hangs up. And the “frequent flier” perks it once used to attract and retain customers now are set aside for the people who spend a lot of money.
And, like United Airlines, the United States barely even bothers to pretend to care.
Income inequality? Public education? Affordable colleges? Medical care? Drivable roads? Safe bridges? A “safety net” for the poor? Workers’ rights? Outrageous pay for CEOs? Politicians bought and paid-for by corporations?
Blah, blah, blah.
Tell it to someone who cares.
Once we polished our armor to fight the “Evil Empire.”
Now we are the Evil Empire – not because we’re inherently evil, but because we’re the only empire around. For better or for worse, for good or for evil, we’re all you’ve got.
Banks get “too big to fail.”
Monopolies get too big to care.
If competition improves the breed, what does a lack of competition do?
Embarrassing correction: Last week’s column contained an embarrassingly stupid error. Torre’s proposed “emergency ordinance” would have limited building heights downtown, but his limit would not have prevented three-story buildings. Other proposals, with stricter height limits, would do that. I knew better. I should have written better. Sorry.
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