Sunday, December 21, 2014

Point of Brew: Building yachts, brewing beer and bettering America


From page A9 | June 06, 2013 |

The great 12-meter yachts made famous by the America’s Cup races were not similar boats: They were the result of any compromise design that met the rules for the 12-meter class. That is, they were built to a formula based on such things as length of waterline, sail area and draft. Designers could vary the dimensions in any way they wished so long as the measurements added up to 12 meters when plugged into the class formula.

Beer is similarly designed to a formula that depends on manipulating three dimensions related to malts, hops, sometimes other materials and yeast; brewers struggle within these limitations to deliver a beer that is the ideal compromise. While some designers of 12-meter yachts will tilt the formula toward a vessel that does best in light airs, or heavy ones, so a brewer may choose his materials and practices to address a particular market. That is why there is such a range of beers in the marketplace. Though they are all beers by definition (or rather “malt liquors,” that is, containing malt, hops and alcohol), they meet the standard in different ways that represent a compromise.

The Founding Fathers of this great country, who would have known quite a bit about sailboats and beers, designed our new country based on that same idea of compromise: They established the formula by which we would govern ourselves (that we call for want of a better description a “system of checks and balances”) and then assumed that honest compromise would find a sure way to the most elegant yacht, the most marketable beer and the most harmonious solution of the political conundrum.

It seems to have worked pretty well until rather recently and now it does not work at all.

I am not by nature a small government man. I grew up in a country with a powerful central government seated in the Palace of Westminster in London. The party with the majority in the House of Commons, with the power of the Whip, could carry out its mandate, that is, pass laws, write a budget, increase or lower taxes, and so on more or less at will. It seemed to work well.

And so I think I suffer more frustration than most citizen-observers at the ludicrous even clownish behavior of elected members of Congress that we see today. I wonder if such disregard for the interests of the American people (whom these politicians mention often but I think never see nor listen to) is actually legal or if there is a case to be made for suit.

I guess it’s time we the people impeached the whole mangy lot of them.

I have a solution, of course, and, naturally, it’s based on the experience that designing 12-meter yachts or brewing beer (and selling it) teaches us. That is, if you get the compromise wrong, and build a yacht that is mostly waterline and little sail, you will produce a slow boat that loses the race. There may be those waterline fanatics who admire its beauty, but, at the end of the day, the boat will be slow and a loser. Similarly, if the formulation of a beer be excessive in some dimension — very black or very bitter or overly alcoholic — it will no doubt attract some devotees, but not many, and it will fail in the marketplace.

Slow yachts and undrinkable beers wind up on the scrap heap of history, and that is where the present government belongs.

Civilized Americans point to the ballot box as a way toward a government that governs, or in my metaphor toward a yacht designer who can compromise or a brewer who can sense the proper balance of ingredients. But these days the route to the ballot box is so vexed by gerrymandered districts and so polluted with big money that only a wide-eyed idealist would dare to pretend there is any hope in this traditional route.

No! What is required is a new American Revolution.

I have come to favor secession.

Now, I know this didn’t work out too well last time it was tried, but that was because only some states seceded; suppose all of them did! We could then renegotiate those things the federal government may do to a much more limited list so that we would not daily have to observe the sorry spectacle that our national politics have become. These days, Washington does nothing for the people of the nation: it passes no laws, it solves no problems, it addresses no ills, it resolves no controversies, it favors no initiatives, it promotes no progress, but it feeds on stalemate and scandal.

How could we possibly be inconvenienced if our government in Washington simply failed to exist altogether, or if its influence were reduced to some meager level of relevance suited to the competence of our elected representatives? If they got merely to look after the military and FEMA and petty cash would that overwhelm them?

Of course, secession would put 50 state governments in the lead; not a pretty idea but at least that puts government much closer to the electorate and so we, the electors, might have a better chance of getting the government we deserve.

Maybe that’s the rub: the government we have truly is the government we deserve because we don’t demand better. We watch with dismay and disgust and cynicism the shenanigans in D.C. and, because we think we are powerless to do anything about it, we render ourselves powerless to do anything about it.

Time for a new yacht and a different beer: Manifest Secession. That’s doing something about it!

— Reach Michael Lewis at Comment on this column at



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