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Happy 130th Birthday to the Patron Saint of the US

Science fiction author Spider Robinson once wrote that God is an iron. If a burglar commits burglary, then one who commits irony is an iron, and by that definition, God is truly an iron, and July 4th is proof.

Fifty years after the adoption of the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson and John Adams famously died within hours of each other on July 4, 1826. These two founders represented two poles of the revolution, and were tied together long before they both breathed their last. Jefferson’s words gave voice to the spirit of the new nation, and Adams’s passion for independence gave life to the new nation as a nation. But these two sharing a common date of death is not ironic. If anything, it’s a fitting tribute.

If you want irony on the Fourth of July, you have to go to San Francisco on July 4, 1883, for the birth of a little boy named Reuben. Reuben later graduated from UC Berkeley with a degree in engineering, and worked for the SF Water and Sewers Department, but that lasted a mere six months. Reuben’s passion was drawing, and he got a job with the San Francisco Chronicle, which eventually began publishing his drawings and cartoons. He later moved on to New York’s Evening Mail, and became nationally known through syndication, winning a Pulitzer prize for his work.

Happy Birthday, Reuben — or as you’re better known, Rube.

Rube Goldberg’s name is synonymous for designs that show over-engineered, overly complicated, and kneeslappingly funny contraptions designed to do relatively simple things. When you look back over the history of the US, it’s shockingly obvious that Rube Goldberg is the quintessential political and economic father of his country.

Exhibit A: The electoral college. “OK, you want a chief executive . . . simply casting votes is too easy. Let’s say that states get votes, not people. Then let’s set up a big canvas of the entire country to figure out how many folks live where. But don’t give each state votes in proportion to their size — toss a couple of extra votes to each state, and give the less populated states a little more clout. Call these voters ‘electors,’ but demand (by law or custom) that they not actually exercise any independent judgment. They have to vote for the candidate they are told to vote for. Finally, for a real twist, create a patchwork system of local election laws, state election rules, ID requirements, and the like . . .”

Rube Goldberg would have loved Bush v. Gore. “The machine is working precisely as designed!”

But it’s not just Rube’s political contraptions that make me propose him as the Patron Saint of the US. Let us consider his contributions to economics and business. [cont’d]

Exhibit B: The medical insurance industry. If you have an operation at one hospital, it will — by design — have a different cost from every other hospital. Not because one is more efficient than another, or its medical providers offer different levels of care. The cost will be different because different insurance companies have worked out different deals with each one, dictating specific prices and reimbursements, ruling out some practices and requiring others. Not, mind you, primarily because of any medical reasons. No, the reason for the deal-making is to provide sufficient profits for ever-increasingly high salaries paid to insurance company executives and the same kind of returns for the stockholders of the insurance companies.

Rube would have loved the recent SCOTUS decision on the Affordable Care Act. The likely fact that John Roberts wrote sizable chunks of both the majority opinion and the biting dissent is something that would have made old Rube smile.

The truly Goldbergian nature of the US isn’t clear, however, until you put the political next to the economic/business . . .

Exhibit C: Campaign finance laws. A company can’t pay millions to a candidate, but they can pay billions for political ads to support them. But don’t call it corporate bribery; call it corporate free speech. People who contribute to these groups have their donations made public, but not those who contribute to other groups . . .

Rube would have loved Stephen Colbert.

Exhibit D: the fine art of legislative negotiations.

Exhibit E: the presidential nomination process

Exhibit F: . . .

Well, you get the idea. You can add more exhibits in the comments.

Yes. if you want a candidate for Patron Saint of the United States of America, I don’t think you can come up with a better candidate than Rube Goldberg.

I’m not saying that Goldberg being born on July 4th is proof of the existence of God. But if you accept the existence of God already, then Rube being born on July 4th is proof that God is an iron. It’s also proof that God has one helluva sense of humor.

So to speak.


video h/t to Dougal McGuire

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I'm an ordained Lutheran pastor with a passion for language, progressive politics, and the intersection of people's inner sets of ideals and beliefs (aka "faith" to many) and their political actions. I mostly comment around here, but offer a weekly post or two as well. With the role that conservative Christianity plays in the current Republican politics, I believe that progressives ignore the dynamics of religion, religious language, and religiously-inspired actions at our own peril. I am also incensed at what the TheoCons have done to the public impression of Christianity, and don't want their twisted version of it to go unchallenged in the wider world. I'm a midwesterner, now living in the Kansas City area, but also spent ten years living in the SF Bay area. I'm married to a wonderful microbiologist (she's wonderful all the way around, not just at science) and have a great little Kid, for whom I am the primary caretaker these days. I love the discussions around here, especially the combination of humor and seriousness that lets us take on incredibly tough stuff while keeping it all in perspective and treating one another with respect.

And Preview is my friend.