Lance Armstrong’s bid for an eighth Tour de France victory came to an end in Paris last month as he placed third in cycling’s storied event. The 37-year-old Texan did manage to make it to the podium, however, placing third to two younger rivals, including his Spanish teammate, Alberto Contador, who finished first for the second time. Armstrong was the second oldest cyclist to place at the tour, and his age granted him an underdog status he did not enjoy during his record-setting string of seven victories. Back then, he endured verbal assaults and worse from French spectators who suspected he was doping. This time around, the French largely greeted him with cheers, and the usually stoic Armstrong seemed to enjoy the attention.
Armstrong left cycling in 2005 at the top of the sport, following the model of Sandy Koufax and other athletes who preferred to end their careers early rather than allow the public to watch age dull their brilliance. The urge to compete lured Armstrong back, though surely the money helped too. In the days before the race, it was easy to be convinced that he would don the victor’s yellow jersey once again, even if he was still recovering from a collarbone injury. In the end he failed, yet there was something just as satisfying about watching him compete fiercely but finally be eclipsed in the critical moments. Like the 59-year-old golfer Tom Watson, who lost by one stroke at the British Open, Armstrong failed to complete the storyline that sportswriters longed to write, but that almost does not matter. He will return to France to compete again next year, and the story will begin again.
Like many other corporations, General Electric saw its second-quarter earnings plummet this year. Net income fell 47 percent to $2.9 billion, down from $5.4 billion a year ago. But there is a story buried within those cold numbers that sheds light on the parlous condition of the U.S. economy. One of the main reasons for the earnings decline is the poor performance of G.E.’s formerly profitable financial services arm, G.E. Capital. That division saw its earnings fall by a staggering 80 percent, from $2.9 billion last year to just $590 million.
You didn’t know G.E. was in the financial services business? Well, beginning in the 1980s the company long admired for its reliable light bulbs and toasters began to jettison those traditional businesses in favor of something more profitable—financial instruments. In 1984 the company sold its small appliance division to Black & Decker. (That explains where your G.E. irons went.) Last year it announced it would soon spin off, of all things, lighting, which may mean the end of the familiar G.E. light bulb. Where has the company focused its hopes? G.E. Capital, which originally helped homeowners finance purchases of refrigerators, but moved into arenas like real estate finance. It became the company’s leading profit center and one of the largest “non-bank” financial institutions in the world. Then came the crash.
G.E. mirrors the American economy, which has been moving away from “old-fashioned” businesses like manufacturing into high finance. Perhaps it is time to remember the value of actually “bringing good things to life” rather than simply speculating on them.
Imbalance of Power?
As Congress works out its proposals for health care reform, the spotlight has focused on the powerful Senate Finance Committee. If the committee agrees on a bill, its six members—three Republicans and three Democrats—would offer the promise of significant bipartisan support. The power of this committee is especially striking when one looks at the population of the states the members represent. Wyoming (532,668), North Dakota (641,481) and Montana (967,440) are among the smallest in the nation; and Maine (1.3 million), New Mexico (1.9 million) and Iowa (3 million) are not much bigger. In total, these six senators represent fewer than eight million people, less than the population of New York City. Yet they weigh in heavily on the future health care of all Americans, not just for the 46 million uninsured or for the “other 46 million” who are on Medicare. The latter figure is expected to rise rapidly over the next two decades.
One could regard this committee’s position as a problem of immense disproportion, an imbalance of power that should somehow be checked. (Indeed, the House of Representatives, which is the structural check on Senate power, has proposed two bills of its own.) Or one could view it idealistically, as an example of the genius of our founding fathers, who expected senators to govern with their own states in mind, which, when tempered by the House, would lead to the public good.
Given its scope, health care reform is an authentic test of how well our government works, or does not work. Still, another “check” must be considered when speaking of government: the people’s voice. In the national health care debate so far, this voice has only begun to be heard.