I rang Lao Tze this morning to ask his help sorting through the befuddlement I'm suffering at the hands of the media and its endless stream of bad economic news. I told him I was confused about current events, didn't understand what was happening to the economy, and was half blinded by fur flying and name-calling and finger pointing going on between bigwig players. I said I didn't understand what they were saying about free-market capitalism, bailouts, rescue plans, socialism, Big Government, Small Government and more.

Lao Tze is probably the greatest of the Chinese sages (he vies for the title with his student, Confucius) and wrote a little book that has been more widely translated, and read by more people than every piece of printed matter save the Bible. Because of this, or maybe despite it, the old sage is a gravelly sort and he doesn't suffer fools lightly and in this area and many others I'm a fool so I only call him when I absolutely must.

He started by reminding me that things go in cycles, and that being in the middle of a rise or a fall makes it hard to see up or down or farther along the path. He said there are little cycles and big cycles and that people who learn to see them can predict earthquakes and the sudden appearance of miracles and also make a lot of money in the stock market. He said the best reason to study cycles is to keep from getting too excited when they go up and when they go down. He said keeping a cool head and having perspective is the sign of a superior person and since I called him in a breathless panic I was far from superior.

I admitted this was true.

He went on to say that despite all our dazzling technology we are not nearly so far from our animal nature as we think we are, and that this is a good thing, not a bad thing, for the farther we stray from nature the more trouble we find. He digressed for a moment to remind me to take a walk on the beach and then went back to discussing communism and socialism and capitalism. He said that communism was a utopia. I interrupted to point out that neither the USSR nor Communist China seem to utopian to me. He nearly smacked me.

"Those places weren't communist," he said. "They were just countries ruled by bad guys who stuck that word on a banner to make themselves look good and fool people. Real communism is about rights and equality and sharing. Real communism is a vision of a world in which everyone works together and has enough, a world in which nobody goes hungry or freezes to death in the forest. It's a beautiful fantasy, and many thinking people embrace it as such, but it's useless because it's not human nature to be so kind. Left to their own devices, some people would share and get along but there are always going to be those who come in the night and whack you on the head and steal your stuff, kidnap your children or drag away women."

It was my turn to interrupt him and point out that Buddha, his competition, seemed a lot more positive about human nature.

"Are you kidding? The guy talked about suffering all the time and spent his whole life teaching people to learn self-control. He wasn't any more positive than I am about things. He was a realist and so am I and by the way he was way, way too skinny, not at all like those fat statues the Chinese make of him."

"So what about free-market capitalism?" I asked. "What about letting the markets find their own level, let businesses do what they want unhampered by regulation or government tinkering?"

He sounded like he wanted to come to my house and hit me. "It's the same thing," he said. "People get greedy. Look at what's been going on in your crazy, round-eye country. If government mixes out too much, thieves take over and they bribe government officials and pretty soon the people in power and their friends are getting rich and everyone else is bled dry."

He must have heard me sniffling at all this because he softened a little bit after that. "Look. Lots of the Chinese kings read my book and I knew they would so I put in some passages to help them. I said governing a country is like frying a small fish. You have to pay attention and keep turning it: gently, so it doesn't break into pieces, and often, to make sure it doesn't burn."

"You're saying we should be socialist."

"I'm saying no such thing. Capitalism is the way of nature. It's individuals trying to survive and be happy. Nature has checks and balances, though, and people have animal nature so they need checks and balances too. If that were not true you would not need police and you would not need soldiers, because nobody would ever try to break into your house or overrun your country. You need the kind of government that pays attention to what's going on all the time, not the sort that concentrates on political diatribes, trumpets their own celebrity, spouts religious judgments or looks in the mirror too often."

"How do we get that kind of government?" I broke in.

"Democracy," he cried, a little bit hoarsely because he is, after all, 2500 years old. "Democracy is great. We never had it in China. Why do you think I spent so much time babysitting kings? But democracy takes a lot of the responsibility off the shoulders of the king and puts it on the people. That means people have to pay attention to whom they elect. It means they have to watch what their leaders are doing and make sure they're turning the fish often enough."

"Attention and responsibility," I repeated.

"The kind of country you have is up to each and every one of you," he said in that heavy accent of his.

Then, as he always does, he hung up without saying goodbye.

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