Two capitalisms stopped in a snowy wood; one took the path less traveled by, and that made all the difference. China is taking the capitalism-plus-communism road. Russia and the US are taking the capitalism-plus-oligarchy road. And India is somewhere in- between.
And democracy, real democracy? A government of the people, by the people, and for the people? Well, that is perishing from the earth.
A friend from Shanghai was in town the other day, and when the conversation turned to poverty in Vermont, she leaned in earnestly and asked, "And how is your government planning to fix this?"
For me, it was one of those "Aha!" moments. I suddenly realized that we no longer have a government interested in fixing things. In fact, we no longer have a government interested in doing, well, any of the things that governments are expected to do.
Our government is not interested in supporting a medical system that works for all Americans. Instead, it is interested in supporting a healthy health insurance industry. The American people? Let them die in the road if they can't afford doctors and medications.
Our government is not interested in protecting our infrastructure. It has no vast budget for fixing roads, bridges, airports, and mass transit. It is not interested in improving security at our borders or at our ports and airports, cleaning up our ever-more-toxic air and polluted water, building better schools, or housing the mentally ill and impoverished.
Our government has no interest in protecting the natural world in which we live. Despite all evidence about global warming and environmental destruction, it denies their existence in the name of corporate profits.
Our government is not interested in protecting the freedoms our country has fought for and enjoyed for hundreds of years. Instead, it spies on us in the streets, taps our phones, subpoenas journalists' notes, puts journalists in jail, prevents demonstrations anywhere near the president, tries to clamp down on the Internet, demonizes trial lawyers to protect corporate profits, demonizes the press to curb its ability to investigate government corruption, and puts on the bench judges who protect - in ways that defy common sense - corporations' rights to buy the government of their choosing.
Our government is not interested in protecting the economic wealth and well-being of America and its people. It sends billions of our hard-earned tax dollars down the rat hole of Iraq, sends our jobs abroad to countries with cheap labor, produces nothing, strip-mines whatever leftover resources it can get its hands on, borrows like a drunken sailor, sells off pieces of America to its friends abroad, does nothing to end its currency freefall, discourages savings and encourages usury - that would be Visa and MasterCard to you.
Our government is not interested in protecting us from our enemies. It started this mad war in Iraq which has, predictably, turned that country into a training center for terrorists and spiraled it down to the brink of civil war. Its torture and concentration camps have inflamed the entire Muslim world against us. It supports dictators and sells them arms. It is developing a "crisis" in Iran that could lead to the use of nuclear weapons.
How is the government going to fix it, asks my friend? The shame of it is that hers is a logical question, one that most Americans used to ask. Today, they only ask it when their houses get blown down or flooded out. And even then, they kind of know the answer. They only have to look towards New Orleans.
For about forty years, from the 1930s to the 1970s, there were intelligent reins on capitalism. American political philosophy could be summed up as "the greatest good for the greatest number." Ordinary people worked hard, made money, bought houses and educated their children. The middle class grew strong. Creativity in business as well as in the arts unleashed great energy and created great wealth. The country grew rich and strong.
But then things changed. Since the election of Ronald Reagan, we've seen a total turnaround. We've gone from the idea of a government in service to the public interests to a government in service to the wealthy interests. "Greed is good" has become the mantra. If you have money, America is the greatest country on earth. But most of us are struggling just to pay our monthly bills. "We don't care about the future," we hear the rich braying. "We don't care about the greatest good for the greatest number. We don't care about the environment. We don't care about you. We've got ours - you go to hell." It's the song, the ethos of our time.
If you want pure, extreme, undiluted capitalism, America today is what you get. That's why China hasn't gone all the way over to it. They can read the newspapers. They know how life in America is disintegrating.
China, of course, is no great beacon of democracy. Censorship, imprisonment for speaking out against the government, totalitarian leadership, flagrant disregard for human rights, environmental degradation, a restricted press - these define China in the minds of many Americans.
But according to my friend, her government is working hard to solve the country's enormous problems. Capitalism, even without democracy, is helping millions of people build better lives. And oddly enough, she says, people are now allowed to speak their minds much more freely than ever before.
Wouldn't that be one of the ultimate ironies of the 21st century? That the Chinese are coming into a time of economic prosperity and personal liberty just as Americans are losing theirs?
Joyce Marcel is a free-lance journalist who lives in southern Vermont and writes about culture, politics, economics and travel. Email to: email@example.com.