The Soviet Union vs Microsoft

As we turn the lackadaisical corner toward July 4th, I want to relate a story. Two, actually.

In the summer of 1992 I boarded an Aeroflot jetliner with seventy other Vermont Youth Orchestra musicians, bound for Yaroslavl, Russia. As the pilot lifted the nosewheel and the Russians lifted their homemade cigarettes, we coughed our way to a country in the throes of post-Soviet upheaval. I was about to get a lesson not so much in Tchiakovsky as economics, and this one came with hunger attached.

I stayed with a host family. They spoke no English. I spoke no Russian. Speaking our native languages at each other more loudly wasn't working. So they invited a family friend to stay with us, a savant-level computer programmer who was learning English, to translate. There was little food, so one afternoon we got into something he called a car but I considered more like a go-cart with a roof and we drove to the countryside to go fishing for dinner.

On the way home, our car-go-cart was running low on fuel. We pulled into a gas station in the shadow of one of the world's largest oil refineries, only to be informed there was no fuel, as it had not been allocated by authorities. I stood there looking at this massive, intricate steel structure, wondering how a system could be so dysfunctional that they couldn't move the product thirty more feet to dispense it.

Four years later, I was waiting with twenty-five other interns in Bill Gates's backyard for him to arrive at a barbecue he was hosting. When the Nerd King showed up to address the Peon Nerds, everyone froze. I figured I might as well go talk to him, he certainly wasn't going to make me any poorer, and I wasn't going to make him any richer, or at least not in a way he'd notice.

He looked terrible. He was having trouble standing. I asked one of his three handlers why he appeared to have just exited a cyclone, and the handler said he hadn't slept in over 48 hours. As part of Team Peon Nerd, this was just awesome in our book, and gave him super-cred. But reflecting on it, when your net worth is north of $100 billion dollars and you are still working so hard you don't sleep, you clearly are living in a society that incentivizes excellence, creativity, and hard drive.

The juxtaposition between those two summers never has left me. For all of our problems, and there are many, we landed in a system that allowed one talented computer scientist to build Microsoft instead of fishing to survive. Our system stumbles forward on a path that travels to the horizon.

Democratic free markets are an incredible invention. The mathematics of their bounty over time are simply inarguable. In under 40 years, they lifted 800 million people out of poverty in China, slashing the poverty rate from 90% to under 2%. But to make them better, we want more people participating in their capital, not just their labor, reward. That's our objective, our small contribution, at One Day In July.

Have a nice 4th. I always like it when it lands on a Wednesday.

Dan Cunningham

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