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Sunday, February 22, 2009

Burn it All

Our government is about to print more money. In times of economic boom, this is done as an intentional devaluation of the currency so that it can be used more effectively in the economy - in other words, when the penny is too valuable to be spent on a piece of candy, something needs adjustment because the currency for buying pieces of candy individually does not exist. There was a time in Britain when golden guineas were so scarce that they were hoarded by the nobility and by rich merchants for foreign trade... also Britain's peasants at times fell back on something resembling a barter economy for lack of silver pennies (one of the reasons governments switched from precious metals to paper/faux coinage was so that the government could control the money supply and use it to represent wealth like sheep’s wool and wheat).

This is not an economic boom. In times of economic downturn, recession, or (as I am beginning to suspect this will be) depression, printing more money is a way for the government to pay government workers. The hope is that no one will notice the devaluation of the currency until it is too late, allowing the government a few years of peace and quiet in which to shuffle blame around and decide which hee-hawing asses are going to take the fall for everything.

So this is a call to all Americans who can afford the losses:

Please burn your money.

Technically the government is burning your money as we speak, so you’re not actually losing anything. You have been robbed already, and burning money only serves to create a realistic image of how much money you actually have.

If enough Americans go out back and burn money, maybe we can avoid the currency collapse that struck China so many years ago. Its government devalued the currency so fast and hard that people were paid in wheelbarrows full of bills (incidentally I am not using hyperbole here) that weren’t worth anything by noon the next day. Maybe we can avoid starving to death in the streets, and war with all the nations who refuse to allow us to settle our bills with the unstable dollar and demand that we barter off the homeland instead.

Trust me... we do not want war with China. Not now, and probably not ever. War these days does not mean what it used to mean. The weapons are too mean, too unscrupulous and too destructive. War between superpowers in the old world meant millions of dead soldiers and cities burned to the ground. They accomplished this with gunpowder and napalm and bullets.

Today, we have missiles that can reach orbit.

We have nuclear weapons hundreds of times more destructive than the horrors that fell on Hiroshima and Nagasaki (any one of these monsters would vaporize all of Manhattan instantaneously, then carry on gallantly into New York State). China has these toys, just like we do, and the question you need to ask yourself is this:

Is China the evil (or amoral) giant or a state of great conscience?

Let us evaluate the options. If China is evil or amoral, they will use nuclear weapons in a war with America. War with them would result in the devastation both of China and of the U.S.. No one would win, and (honestly) no one would probably survive, including you.

If China is a state of great conscience, war with them is not morally justified, and we would be (in actuality) the “bad guys.” History would write us in as the guys that couldn’t pay off our debts and solved the problem by going to war. We would be France! The very fact that I am, this day, mocking France for improper banking practices hundreds of years ago is evidence that you never recover from that kind of idiocy. That doesn’t jive well with me.

So we do not want war. We just don’t.

If we do not want war, we want our creditors to think we can pay them back with money. Which means our money must be worth something, which means we need to stop printing more of it.

Money, like anything else, is prone to supply and demand. If there is more supply, the money is worth less. If there is less supply, the money is worth more. Money must be worth little enough to buy candy, but enough to buy F-14s and nuclear submarines. Right now, the dollar still has value. I can go to Ecuador, pay a Taxi three dollars to take me cross-town and get a huge gourmet lunch for a buck fifty more. Then I can crash at a hostel for six dollars and get breakfast in the deal.

Keep your eye on exchange rates. Right now, Pounds are selling for about 1.1 dollars and Euros for about 1.25 dollars. This is an improvement, mind you, over where we were recently, but this has less to do with improvement at home and more to do with economic collapse in the world outside. The bubble is bursting everywhere.

If the government persists in printing money, then we who can afford it must counter the effect. Consider it a donation of sorts - the printed money is being paid in to repair broken roads and do other such useful stuff, and it is feeding the families of American poor. Every dollar you burn makes their money worth more.

If all of us burn even just a dollar, it will help. Given how little a dollar will be worth soon, that's nothing.

Burn it.

Burn it all.

[Alausi will continue when I've finished the salvage-work on the relevant photographs]

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

On Free Trade and Reasoned Debate

"Men decide far more problems by gate, love, lust, rage, sorrow, joy, hope, fear, illusion, or some other inward emotion, than by reality, authority, any legal standard, judicial precedent, or statute." - Cicero

Recently, an article appeared on the New York Times blog Room for Debate with the title "That 'Buy American' Provision." For those not familiar with the blog, the idea is to give a range of viewpoints on issues and topics currently in the news, via an introduction and a collection of short (~5 paragraph) statements by various guest authors.

In "That 'Buy American' Provision," the subject was the section of the recently passed stimulus package which essentially requires government funded projects to use US-made steel, rather than foreign-made steel, even where domestic materials are more expensive. The guest writers included 5 economists, a union official, a historian, and a US Senator, Sherrod Brown. The article can be found here.

Upon reading Senator Brown's piece, I felt that a response of some kind was necessary. The Senator, an ardent critic of unrestrained free trade and a proponent of 'fair trade,' constructed an argument for the provision that was, in my humble opinion, essentially hand-waving and demagogic. The following is a letter I sent to his office, and I'll post his reply, if I receive one (and no, the actual letter was not signed using my pen name).

-- Marcus Tullius Tiro


Senator Brown,

After reading your comments in the article "That 'Buy American' Provision" (February 11, 2009) on the New York Times website, I must say that I'm disappointed, and more than a little offended. In an impressive display of irony, you took an opportunity for honest discussion of an important issue and sunk to name-calling and making sarcastic comments - on a blog entitled 'Room for Debate.'

You're right in saying that "some Ivy League economists don't like" protectionist trade policies, such as favoring domestic suppliers. But you fail to mention that, by and large, most economists agree with the basic theory of free trade, such as David Ricardo's original assertion that free trade allows countries to mutually prosper via the existence of comparative advantages. You may claim that the theory fails to take into account many of the complexities of the modern economy, or that existing trade agreements fail to guarantee standards of environmental stewardship, or that the effect of 'creative destruction,' which is a natural outgrowth of free trade, should factor more significantly into the discussion on trade policy -- but you do none of these things, and instead offer a snide dismissal of those who disagree as 'elitists.'

Correct me if I'm wrong, but wasn't this exactly the kind of attitude that was supposedly rejected by the American public in our last round of elections? The dismissal of the expert opinions of people who have devoted their lives to studying this issue based on the fact that they are experts is bordering on the absurd! Of course, one can always add that there are many highly respected economists and other experts who support the concept of free trade who, unlike yourself, are not Ivy League alumni.

Contrary to what your claim about these 'elitists,' many of them are exactly the people whose jobs are threatened by free trade policies. In my doctoral program, the vast majority of my colleagues are not US citizens; rather they are foreigners who came to this country in search of educational and academic opportunity. When I enter the job market, many of my competitors will be Americans, but many others will be American-educated foreigners, here by virtue of our policies on the free flow of intellectual capital.

Ignoring, for a moment, your dismissal of "some Ivy League economists," the point that there may be lessons to be learned from the Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act and its impact on the Great Depression is a valid one. Although the actual impact of Smoot-Hawley is still debated today, history shows us that retaliation from our trading partners is a real threat to be mindful of, especially when our country is economically weakened.

If you'd permit me, I'd like to submit another claim to the people of Ohio for 'straight face test': the act of subsidizing domestic producers at the expense of foreign producers, by explicitly favoring them in government spending bills, is anything other than protectionism. Reasonable people can disagree on whether protectionism is right or wrong under different circumstances, but let's not try to avoid calling it what it is. Closing a door, whether it's open a foot or an inch, is still closing a door.

Senator, I believe that you care deeply about the issue of free trade, and I'm sure that you understand the intricacies of US trade policy much more that I do. So, when given the opportunity to voice your opinion in a forum like Room for Debate, to an audience that genuinely wants to understand the conflicting views on such an important subject, why reduce yourself to name-calling and drastic oversimplification? A solid case certainly can and should be made for trade policies that help strengthen American industries and protect American workers, and the Room for Debate blog would have been the perfect forum for such a case.


Marcus Tullius Tiro

Sunday, February 8, 2009

The Long Road to Alausi II - Ecuador 4

In part because the hostel was closed, and in part because there were only a few hours remaining before the adventure we sought was due to begin, we opted to explore a bit instead of sleeping, placing our bets on the local coffee-shops and bakeries opening around 6:00. From 1:50 (our time of arrival) to around 4:00, we wandered, aiming at first at a large, colorful statue of Jesus in the center of town (think “Buddy Jesus” but without the thumb's up and with a slightly less ostentatious grin), which is as good a time as any to mention the way “dogs” work in Ecuador.

I put the word “dog” in quotation marks because in Ecuador the line between dog and wolf is somewhat narrower than in America. In America, if you run into a stray dog, odds are he's more scared of you than you are of him. This is not always the case in Ecuador, where strays arguably serve a very important purpose, and that purpose is inflicting pain on unknown elements who stray too near. The streets of any town at night are roamed by three sorts of dogs. Domestic dogs out for a piss, Strays of domestic origin out because they have nowhere to go (these are often in search of garbage or the leavings of whomever happens to be around), and strays of unknown origin out because they're hungry.

Any encounter with a dog in the street at night (or during the day) in Ecuador is most easily explained with diplomatic terminology. The two parties meet, size each other up, and attempt to ascertain who would have the advantage in a fight. If the dog is alone, this is you. If the dog is not alone, this is him. Borders are drawn depending on who wants to go where, for how long, and why. If both parties merely want to pass, each chooses one side of the street (not the same side) and the meeting is brief and painless, if wary.

If the canine party intends to stay, or considers part (or all) of the street territory (this is often a problem with domestic dogs, near their homes), the human party ascertains the threat level. This involves a series of determinations, starting with the health of the dog. A healthy dog is either a domestic or a stray of unknown origin. Strays of domestic origin usually appear somewhat emaciated, and are most likely to turn tail and run if you opt to move forward. If the healthy dog is also clean, it is domestic, at which point you must ascertain if it is chained. If it is chained, walk on the opposite side of the street. If not, or if you cannot tell, assume the dog is feeling territorial, and find another route. One friend of Ma.'s made the mistake of not heeding her regarding a particular gang of dogs, and paid with a goodly portion of one of his legs. This is not a joke.

If the dog is healthy and dirty, you probably have a problem. Look around for other dogs. If you see any, and they're looking at you, you're either being hunted or you're close to their “territory.” In either case, do not make eye-contact, and attempt to back away. If they follow, antagonizing them would be redundant and so it is wise (according to Ju., a friendly fellow we met in the hostel) to throw rocks, preferably large and/or sharp ones.

The dogs of Alausi know where you are at any time, and you cannot wander the streets at night without them raising unholy hell in whatever neighborhood you are passing through. While we were on the road itself, a small pack of them staked us out, but the arrival of a bus threw off their rhythm (and ours... it was dark and foggy and there was a bend in the road) and they left off their curiosity. Near the Jesus statue we found the final leg blocked by a couple angry-looking small dogs, could not ascertain if they were chained, and found a new way around instead.

We arrived at Jesus to discover the view somewhat obstructed by fog, and photography of the view rendered impossible by the bright white lights which were used to light the statue up at night (though I admit, I was too tired at any rate to pull out my camera, at this point). An interesting consequence of these lights, however, was that at night, every insect in the city (otherwise dimly lit) gravitated upwards and to the center, and hung out (like a pack of mall-rats) around that central square on a hill. Jesus himself was swarming with horned beetles, moths, and other small insects I initially mistook for mosquitoes but later recognized as tiny-little-doohickies-that-don't-bite-so-who-cares.

Aside from the difficulty of not stepping on the horned beetles (I did step on one, which made a rather depressing krunch noise and made me feel rather miserable about myself as a person... they're quite pretty and they are BIG), the square was pleasant enough and contained a map of the town which informed us that there was to be a market held there. Around this time, I identified some of the odd noises as bat noises, and mindful that rabies was a bad thing to have, I suggested we make our way down. The bats were, of course, hunting the local all-you-can-eat buffet, and so left us entirely alone.

We wandered for a time, and eventually set up shop for a nap on a bench, and a bit later in one of the doorways of the train-station while we waited for the town to come alive:

People passed by and said “hi” and such when a certain hour rolled around, and such encounters became more frequent (and more hurried) as time wore on. We gleaned bits of information from passersby while we were awake, learning that the train station actually opened at 8:00, that the train we were here to ride left every hour or so (rendering useless the inane difficulties we had gone through to arrive the previous day to ensure we could get tickets) and no longer arrived from Riobamba because (accounts varied) there had been a mudslide, a rock-slide, or some other catastrophe which closed the rail between those two towns.

Tickets to ride the Devil's Nose cost us eight dollars each, which was a relief, since someone had earlier told us it would cost twenty-five. At this juncture we learned that due to some ten-year-olds managing to seriously injure themselves, the entire point of the trip (riding on top of the train) had been rendered illegal by mayoral edict. At that point, we thought the universe had won, and that the Devil's Nose trip was to be a near-total loss. We took our seats behind muddied, jammed windows and prepared to be underwhelmed.

That said, I have gleaned some degree of perverse pleasure from stringing this tale along over several days, so why don't we leave it there for now, and return to it tomorrow?

Signing out,

Maxwell Evans

Thursday, February 5, 2009

The Long Way to Alausi - Ecuador 3

The last couple days (thirty two hours, to be precise) has been interesting. Ma. and I got up intending to make two day-trips, one down to the hot-springs and one (the following day) down to the Nariz de Diablo, which we understood to involve a two-hour bus-drive down to Alausi and a train ticket. However, someone informed us that in order to get tickets for the train, we'd need to arrive at 3 pm the previous day, so we canceled our trip to the hot-springs and got on a bus headed for (as Ma. pronounces it) Ah-loo-ah-see. The bus-driver informed her that the trip, contrary to what we had been informed, was going to take three and a half hours, so she called ahead to the hostel to see if someone could go buy tickets when the billetario opened at 3:00. When we got on the train, it was approximately 2:00, mas o menos.

Every meaningful experience in my life, it sometimes seems, has come to me while I was lost. My closest friendships, the best stories, my most valued photographs, and (perhaps most importantly) my most potent life lessons. These are the lessons that, as Calvin's father would have said, "build character."

It is interesting, on some level, that this might be so... for is it not the case that the beaten path is the beaten path because it is the best way to go? It seems uncanny that a trail beaten down by so many men and women is, in fact, teaching them little and costing them much of the only resource they can never replace: time. But a beaten trail was once a game-trail, faint and difficult to follow. The road through middle school, high school, and college was once full of dangerous animals and scarred by plentiful conflicting trails leading off into the mists.

Over time, however, this trail has become widened. People have lain down cobblestones and even tar, added trail markers and put up street-lights to mark your way in the dark. In some places there are even moving sidewalks and, wherever it gets too steep, there's a cable car if you can afford to pay for the ticket. When people get to the end of this road, they do not, in other words, find themselves surrounded by the same filthy backpackers that arrived there in the old days, smelling of industrial bug-spray, wincing from the necessary vaccinations and gaunt from (at best) trail food and (at worst) eating whatever they could find along the way. Instead, the end of the path is full of plump, colorful tourists with cameras who turn at your arrival and say "oh, you did it the hard way? How marveous!" and then continue to enjoy the view.

It isn't the road's fault, really... it still builds character if you walk alongside it, fighting off bears and beating your way through the nearby bushes. It still builds character if you ignore the cable car and never pay heed to the walking sidewalk. It still builds character if you dig your meals out of the dirt, or out of the tree-tops, it simply does not reward character. You arrive at the end of the road, and find yourself in the same company you were in when you began your journey. What is the purpose of a journey in which you are never surrounded by new and different sorts of people?

This bus-ride to Alausi might have been that sort of trip. The path was beaten by a thousand tourists before us. But it wasn't.

It wasn't, because when Marly asked the bus driver if he was headed to "Ah-loo-ah-see" he saw my blond hair, identified us as tourists, presumed she intended to say "Eh-loo-ah-sees," a notable resort up north which is, incidentally, three and a half hours from Quito, and said "yes."

So we hopped on the bus, sat down in the back, and didn't think twice about it until Marly noticed (approximately two hours later) that we were passing through a small town which was, most definitively, north of Quito. Alausi is South of Quito, and this was a problem. Marly's suspicions were confirmed by a nice gentleman across from us, a young man from Ibarra who spoke English with a surprising degree of fluency. He invited us to spend the night at his place in Ibarra, told us he owned a flower shop and that the year had been bad for flowers. He said he wasn't really sure what Ibarra had to offer tourists, since he had only just moved there himself, but warned us that any attempt to return to Alausi that night would most likely involve an overnight bus, which did not come recommended.

After a few rounds of Marly running up to the front of the bus and questioning the bus-driver (still using the pronunciation "Ah-loo-ah-see") she came back, grabbed a tour book, opened up a map and went to him to point to it. Shortly after she returned this time, the bus drivers' assistant (each bus driver has a man or woman who goes around collecting money from passengers and otherwise taking care of business) came back to us and informed us (hurriedly) that there was another bus passing us at that moment which was headed toward Alausi and we could get on it if we were so inclined. We apologized (also hurriedly) to the nice young man for not accepting his hospitality and jumped ship, since by our (incorrect) estimation, we'd be able to make it back to Alausi by 20:00.

There followed a hurried exchange between the two drivers (standing on the road) about where, exactly, everyone was going, and when things seemed properly sorted out, Ma. and I jumped onto the bus in question (literally - buses in Ecuador expect a certain limber character from their passengers and tend to assume you'll be able to make it on as long as they're traveling under 15 kmh) and were on our way in the right direction. We soon found out that the bus was not, in fact, headed to Alausi - what the driver had intended to convey to our driver was that he was going to somewhere from where we could get a bus to Alausi.

It is a peculiar case in lost people that in our eternal scrabbling efforts to be "found" we are, nonetheless, somewhat less open towards people of the "found" category. I have a theory now as to why this might be, one which came to me while thinking about a Hostel at which Ma. and I took dinner the other night. There was abundant conversation, interesting characters from just about everywhere (at night's end I found myself in conversation with a New Zealander and his girlfriend, an Englishman, and a girl from Canada, all of whom I shall henceforth refer to by their nationality.

England had a plan. He had a budget and a job to which he would be returning after his plan was carried out. New Zealand and his girlfriend had a plan, though the details of it escape my memory.

Canada though... Canada spoke no Spanish. One day, she had decided to take a few years off school, bought a ticket to Ecuador, and up and left. Her friends barely found out in time to throw her a going-away party, and when I asked her what she was doing down here, she shrugged and replied (paraphrased) that she was going to see where fate felt like dragging her, and follow along without resistance. It was thus in Canada's palm that I left my contact information and a request that she do an article for The Report, whenever the whim struck her. It was Canada in whom I was most interested. Canada was lost and that, to me, meant (though I'm not sure I realized it at the time) that Canada was on her way to learning something worth learning.

The lost attract the lost. We know from experience the value of losing your place in the world, and so we seek not only to repeat the experience, but also to glean from other lost ones what we can of their own wanderings.

When we arrived at the bus transfer, it was quite dark, and the bus we were supposed to be taking to Ambatto (from where we could transfer to Alausi) had already "left the station" so to speak. Fortuitously it had stopped for ten minutes at a little cluster of restaurants so the drivers (and any passengers so inclined) could avail themselves of the available snacks, drinks and newspapers. We were starving, and the only store still selling food made out like a bandit, which made them four dollars and fifteen cents and made us two sodas, three candy-bars, two large sandwiches, a bag of peanuts and two packages of cookies. At least the dollar is still worth something somewhere, eh?

The second bus was very pleasant. All Ecuadorian buses that travel between cities have bathrooms that consist of a metal hole and a bucket of urine, broken in-house lights and have violent movies playing the entire trip, at high volumes, but on this bus they gave us free packages of banana chips and free juices, had curtains and kept the volume of the violent movie down to a manageable level. Considering that Ma. and I had already decided the universe thought badly of our day-trip, this bus was a godsend. The driver was also an amiable fellow, which given his job is a wonder.

Which brings us to Alausi.

The bus driver determined that we needed a hotel, and when we asked him to drop us off at the hostel, he misunderstood, and dropped us by a small hotel at the side of the road. It was foggy (the town and the surrounding hills were quite definitely inside a cloud, at this point at night), and the town itself was down the face of a cliff which we could not scale. Alausi was within sight, but not so much within reach. We began scouting for a way down, and (after rejecting jumping down into a hilltop cemetery because Ma. assured me that "the guards will be armed and they will keep dogs") eventually we settled on following the highway until we found a road down. There was not much in the way of a margin, and we kept Ma.'s phone out so that approaching traffic could see the light even if it couldn't see us. In the darkness and fog we missed the stairs down entirely (they do exist, if any of you are inclined to visit there) and ended up on a long winding road down into town. It was about one o'clock in the morning.

The town was empty.

Our hostel was closed.

The battery on my computer is running low, and this is running long, so I shall continue the story later in Ecuador 4 so that I have time to post this up today. I have not had time enough to revise it, but I have opted not to concern myself with such things until I arrive back in the states.

Signing out for the moment,
Maxwell Evans