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Flight of Ideas:
Jonathan Livingston Seagull and the New Economy
Something invisible guides any idea into communication. Jonathan came in the '70s when people need to hear what he is saying to them. If I had finished the manuscript in the late '50s when I started it, the book probably would not have been accepted. . . . Jonathan is a crystal sphere in which we can see glimpses of our past and our future. He is true for anyone who finds him true.
Airborne, thousands of feet above the ground, soaring, wings straining against gravity and invisible downdrafts, banking now, wheeling precipitously, magnificently gyrating amidst the luminous heavens. The year is 1969, and University of Chicago economist Milton Friedman is circling in a commercial jet above New York's Kennedy Airport, waiting, along with passengers and crew, for permission to land. It had taken only six hours to wing across the Atlantic Ocean, but now landing has been delayed for an hour. "What a waste," he writes; "A multimillion dollar jet, a marvel of modern technology, manned by a highly skilled and highly paid crew, occupied by nearly 200 passengers, many spending highly valuable time, serviced by a [End Page 158] pleasant and attractive complement of hostesses, guzzling fuel as it circled aimlessly high in the sky" ("Up in the Air").
Friedman is frustrated that capitalism seems able to produce airplanes with efficiency, train flight crews and stewardesses, secure "meals to feed the passengers, or liquor to befuddle them," yet remains at the mercy of a single inefficient link in the supply chain—which is to say the "supply" of winged flight, of instantaneous presence anywhere in the world, or as nearly as technology allows. The cause of this maddening "bottleneck," according to Friedman, is the government's "socialized monopoly" over airports. He claims that "in the heyday of free enterprise, the railroads built and almost wholly financed their own terminals"; similarly, private enterprise now should assume ownership and operation of airports and other conduits of market infrastructure. For according to Friedman delays are found on government highways and streets, but not in automobile showrooms, "inefficient" public schools but not textbook publishing, the governmentally run post office but not the privately run phone industry ("Up in the Air"). As he elsewhere states in the context of global trade tariffs and the gold standard crisis of the late 1960s and early 1970s, America must "set the dollar free" ("Set").
Thirty something years later, airports have not become any less clotted—industry deregulation notwithstanding—yet clearly Friedman's metaphor of capital taking flight has triumphed. And not just during the Reagan Revolution, when Friedman's manifesto Free to Choose (1980) was a hallowed document and he achieved a certain celebrity for his appearances on a PBS series of the same name. I mean the way in which the electronic transfiguration of capital has driven an idealized subjectivity, constellation of values, and aesthetic that takes electronic capital itself for a prototype, instantaneous and truly global. Friedman taught Americans to see the "flight" of capital from capital's point of view, to share in the exhilaration of their own obsolescence and reinvention. By the 1990s, Microsoft CEO Bill Gates would be writing ecstatically about "friction-free capitalism" while his Business @ The Speed of Thought was touting a nearly instantaneous "digital nervous system" for corporations (Road 235; Business xvii). Kevin Kelly, executive editor of Wired magazine, would enthuse that the
principles governing the world of the soft—the world of intangibles, of media, of software, and of services—will soon command the world of the hard—the world of reality, of atoms, of objects, of steel and oil, and the hard work done by the sweat of brows. Iron and lumber will obey the laws of software, automobiles will follow the rules of networks, [End Page 159] smokestacks will comply with the decrees of knowledge.
And we might...