R.O.C. On!

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We were nearly out of money.

Taiwan, a small country, controls its foreign exchange. Not for nefarious purposes (think Venezuela and Zimbabwe), but because — when it comes to monetary policy — size has consequences. Though fiscally and economically sound, Taiwan is vulnerable to currency manipulation from a multitude of sources.

Our guidebooks recommended changing money at the airport kiosks. But George, our Taiwanese contact in Taipei, told us not to fret — ATMs were everywhere and banks exchanged currency at will without a commission. Since we’d arrived at midnight, were thoroughly jet-lagged, and still faced an hour’s ride into Taipei, we followed George’s advice.

The following day, with George translating and easing the procedure at his bank, we changed only a portion of our funds — mostly because of my innate conservatism and the ease of the transaction. However, we weren’t run-of-the-mill tourists or business visitors to Formosa, as the Taiwanese still proudly, and often, refer to their country.

Tina, my wife, and I were planning to bicycle Taiwan’s perimeter — about 850 miles — eating at street stalls and night markets, and sleeping in modest lodgings such as B&Bs. But what we hadn’t foreseen caught up with us. Taiwan’s banks stick to the big cities and, while ATMs are everywhere, they rejected our US cards like an organ transplant gone bad. Moreover, only big hotels and fancy restaurants accepted credit cards.

Riding through Neipu, two-thirds through the trip, I spotted a bank and yelled to Tina to pull over. We carved out a parking space between the road and the wall-to-wall buildings, among the throng of cars, scooters, bikes, pedestrians, and dogs milling about or settled. It was the kind of place that in the US usually contains official parking spaces, a sidewalk, driveways, and front set-backs in the form of lawns, patios, porches, or business foyers, but in Taiwan is a chaotic jumble of all of the above, along a narrow strip — with the addition of street vendors and wall-less, brick-and-mortar businesses fully exposed to the hubbub. It was 3:30 in the afternoon, the bank closed at 4:00, and we were still 20 kilometers from Pingtung, our day’s destination. So we had plenty of time.

The bank’s door guard welcomed me and asked my business.

Now, Mandarin is so radically different from the Indo-European languages that the Taiwanese compensate for the difficulties with acutely tuned inferential antennae and artfully adept sign language. It’s not that Chinese has a difficult grammar (like German); it has none that seems like grammar to us. Simply string words together and you can make sense. It’s the tones, four in most instances, that to someone who is tone-deaf are impossible. And the pronunciation of some of the consonants. The differences betweent’s and d’s; b’s and p’s; ch’s, zh’s, q’s, s’s, ts’s, x’s,and jh’s, plus others — in Roman pronunciation transcriptions — are so subtle that it was like trying to speak French with a mouthful of pebbles.

On the island, Chinese culture continued uninterruptedly — more or less — while on the mainland, much of it was brutally obliterated by Mao’s insistence on reconfiguring human nature.

If I want to ask a question in an unfamiliar language when traveling abroad, I’ll enunciate the key word with a rising tone to indicate a question. That’s nearly impossible in China. Once the tone of a word is fiddled with, the meaning changes unpredictably. In China, one must use a complete phrase so that, if one’s tone isn’t just right, the listener can infer the gist of one’s query from its context.

I hesitate to try to explain written Chinese with its 8,000 or so characters. Memorizing the key characters in important words such as “men” and “women” — for going #1 and #2 — or “hotel” on a sign — for going #3 — was a distraction that we turned into a game. It’s a very unpretentious language, almost prosaic, with — mostly — descriptions instead of actual names. “China” in Chinese literally means “Middle Country”, a reference to its central location between India and Japan, and Russia and the Malay Archipelago. The character for “middle” is a rectangle with a vertical line through its middle. Months don’t have “names”; their “names” are “First Month”, “Second Month”, etc.

So I asked George how my name, Bob Miller, would be rendered in script. “Bob”becomes bo, or ‘knowledgeable’; “Mi”is ‘rice’; and “ller” becomes lo, meaning ‘joy’ — a propitious rendering, according to my friends.

Everyone in the bank turned to look at the westerner with the biking helmet. In response to the door guard’s inquiry, I pulled out a US $100 bill to indicate I wanted to change currency. The entire staff rolled their eyes and threw up their arms — not in an off-putting manner, but rather in an inclusive “we’re-all-going-to-share-a-root-canal-at-closing-time-and-we’re-going-to-pull-together-and-actually-have-fun.”

A teller ushered me to a seat, placed a cup of tea in my hands, and indicated that I should wait. Two minutes later the manager brought me a snack and tried to engage me. Placing my fists close to each other, I rotated them to duplicate the motion of pedaling a bike, uttered “Taiwan”, and signed an oval in the air to say that I was biking around Taiwan. The staff erupted in smiles, hung haos(very good), and thumbs up. More tea, more snacks, more encouraging glances, more waiting.

Twenty minutes later, only the foreign exchange teller was engaged — with what looked like an Indonesian lady. When she stood up, he motioned me over. I handed him my passport and counted out $400 US in $50 and $100 bills. He scrutinized the passport, including the tourist visa stamped in the back, and then the US money, first separating the denominations, then collating the bills. He rejected three $50 bills: two that were well-worn and one that was brand new, saying in English, “too old.” So I gave him one more $100 bill, which he accepted. He counted the money — twice — wrote down the amount, and asked for my confirmation. Then he stood up and approached the vault.

I got the impression that this bank branch had little experience with US money and had never seen a US $50 bill. While waiting for his return, various tellers brought more tea, more snacks, and more friendly attempts to communicate. One snack consisted of dry, pickled prunes, the pits of which I needed to spit out. The attractive teller who’d offered them to me was well aware that she might be pushing the limits of a westerner’s tastes, and so was expectantly attentive to my reaction. She pulled a handkerchief from her purse, put it on her palm and indicated that I should spit the pit onto it. Apprehensive that spitting into her hand might cross some sort of intimacy line, I hesitated. She understood perfectly well and reassured me by repeating “is OK, OK.”

The foreign exchange teller’s cubicle had a small poster touting remittances to Vietnam and Indonesia, thus serving two populations — along with Filipinos — that regularly seek work in Taiwan. Another laminated, placemat-sized poster portrayed various denominations of Renmimbi, the currency of the mainland (People’s Republic of China, or PRC; as opposed to ROC, Republic of China, or Taiwan), with highlights and closeups showcasing what to look for in counterfeit Yuan (Renmimbi notes).

In 2008 President Ma Ying-jeou (reelected in 2012) negotiated a liberalized trade deal with the PRC that included an easing of travel restrictions for mainlanders, the first time since the Communist victory that they would be allowed to travel to Taiwan. The island was seeking an economic boost, while China was hoping that contact between travelers and locals would help lead to eventual political unification with Taiwan, which Beijing considers a renegade province. Mainlanders refer to Taiwan as “Treasure Island”: for its fabled beauty (as did the Portuguese: Formosa means “beautiful”); its trove of historical treasures brought over by Chiang Kai-shek in 1949; its democracy; and, most importantly, its shopping.

Anti-Communist demonstrations, often spear-headed by the Falun Gong, nearly always greet the mainlander tour buses at their scheduled stops.

The demand is overwhelming. If every mainlander who wanted to visit Taiwan were allowed in, the island would sink. So the numbers are strictly controlled and relegated to organized tour groups. In many respects Taiwan is considered more Chinese than China. On the island, Chinese culture continued uninterruptedly — more or less — while on the mainland, much of it was brutally obliterated by Mao’s insistence on reconfiguring human nature.

And there are other restrictions, lately further liberalized in 2011 (such as allowing a small number of mainlanders to travel by themselves). Though the mainlanders are indeed an economic boost, the social disruption they cause would be catastrophic, were they given free range. We were advised to visit popular tourist sites early in the morning, before mainlanders’ tour buses arrived. Taiwanese scuttlebutt is that they’re uncouth slobs who litter, spit and urinate willy-nilly; foul the bathrooms; are rude and unwilling to queue; and dress inappropriately — either like hillbillies or like ne’er-do-wells. So they’re limited to two-week visits. Roadside rest stops for their tour buses have temporary, purpose-placed bathrooms (Taiwanese bathrooms, both public and private, are spotless). Anti-Communist demonstrations, often spear-headed by the Falun Gong (a religious sect outlawed on the mainland), nearly always greet the tour buses at their scheduled stops. Most Taiwanese doubt the efficacy of the placard exhibits and displays in making conversions; but the mainlanders never fail to gaze in wonder at the mere fact that such demonstrations occur at all.

At 4 PM the door guard closed the bank. No one got up to leave. My teller returned with my passport, two photocopies of it, and a form to fill out. He was stumped by my name. In Chinese, the first name is the family name; the following two, hyphenated, names are given names. So I wrote out “Chiang Kai-shek” and “Miller Robert Howard” and drew arrows between the equivalents. He smiled, and then asked for my phone number by pointing to his cell phone. I responded bushi dianhua (no phone).

The whole staff turned to look at me, amazed and incredulous. Taiwan is the Silicon Valley of Asia. The Taiwanese can no more conceive of an individual without a cell phone than they can imagine a meal without rice. My teller grimaced and looked lost. I started to sense that the lack of a phone could be a dealbreaker. Then I remembered that Tina had one, loaned to us by Jorie, George’s wife. It had proved useless, however, because all the displays were in Chinese script. I motioned the teller to wait and went to fetch Tina outside where she’d been babysitting the bikes.

Her wait hadn’t been boring. The next-door juice stand had refused payment for the smoothie she’d ordered. A nearby resident had let his house-broken pet piglet out for a pee, after which the pig nuzzled the man’s ankle with overwhelming affection, which the man returned with scratches to its head as they both ambled back inside. Passers-by stopped to ask her about us and our trip. Tina dug out the cell phone, brought it inside, and handed it to the teller, who quickly retrieved its number. Another teller brought her a cup of tea and snacks while the door guard indicated that he’d keep an eye on the bikes.

Passing the snake restaurant, where delicacies included snake semen and blood dishes, Tina and I demurred.

My teller then began writing the serial numbers from each of the US bills on the form. When he was finished, he asked me to check his work and initial it. I did, and he wrote down the exchange rate for me: NT$28.60=$1.00 US (later confirmed independently). My 2011 Lonely Planet guidebook reported an exchange rate of NT$32.20 to the US dollar and stated that rates were very stable, because of Taiwan’s fiscal probity. Nonetheless, this was either an 11% devaluation of the US dollar or an equivalent appreciation of the Taiwan dollar, in one year. Guess which one.

He went back to the vault and came back quickly with my New Taiwan Dollars (NT$), placed them in a bill counter, and then hand counted them twice. Finally, he wrote their serial numbers on the form and placed the wad in front of me without counting it, along with a copy of the completed form. He looked at me, awaiting my counter-count of the NT$s. It was 4:30 PM.

I picked up the wad, waved my other palm in front of me, and said in English, “I trust you.” The whole staff broke out laughing; my teller smiled — broadly. The reasons for the laughter were both ironic and post-ironic.

The Taiwanese are honest to a degree that beggars credulity. Bikes are parked outside without locks; street vendors leave their stalls out overnight, fully stocked, with only a blue tarp to keep rain off. We saw two separate instances of million (US) dollar jewelry displayed in regular glass cases without added security or guards; one instance of a lost Malaysian’s wallet full of cash returned whole; and two instances of returned tips, one from a woman who was both cook and waitress. She was so proud of her dish and our appreciation of it that she insistently pressed the gratuity back into my hands. In Beipu, Tina got into a gesture argument with a street vendor, which soon drew a crowd of adjacent vendors. Apparently, she’d inadvertently paid too much for her purchase and the vendor was attempting to return her overpayment. Tina adamantly refused. The vendor won. To top it off, we saw no beggars or homeless people; no graffiti or evidence of vandalism; and we were never warned away from any neighborhood, anywhere on the island.

After 20 days of uniformly guileless and transparent interactions and transactions, I instinctively trusted the teller. The irony is that his superiors took a formalprecautionary approach — doubtless necessary to the banking business — that required an assumption of no trust. My teller had to perform tasks associated with my transaction that — other than running a grease pen across a bill — we usually find unnecessary in the US. I understood why they laughed.

It was nearly 4:45 PM when we mounted our bikes and headed for Pingtung. The bank’s staff wrapped things up, gathered at the door to wish us a good trip, waved us goodbye, and headed home.

Taiwhat?!

The Taiwan Tourism Board’s ad in The Economist had caught my eye because ittouted the island’s biking opportunities. Biking in Taiwan? That overcrowded and industrial corner of Asia that not long ago inherited Japan’s post-war reputation for mass-producing cheap and tacky stuff? I read on: “gorgeous scenery . . . dense forests . . . 22 National Parks & Scenic Areas . . . hundreds of kilometers of bike trails . . . more than 500 species of birds . . . a food-lover’s paradise . . .” Further research revealed that the heaviest population density is concentrated along the flat plains of the west coast, with the rest of the country resembling Vancouver Island, but with even taller peaks.

As to biking, with Taiwan manufacturing the world’s share of decent-end bicycles — Giant, Merida, Surly, Schwinn, Cannondale, et alia — a biking craze had grabbed the country about seven years ago and never let go. In cities, bike rental and loaner kiosks are ubiquitous. Nearly every road hosts a bike lane, and politicians run on campaigns to build even more bike paths. Some sections of the highway along the precipitous east coast offer more bike paths than car lanes. On days off, entire families from two-year-olds to grannies in coolie hats, take to their bikes. Police stations provide bikers with air, water, tools, flat-repair kits, and free camping (an indication that Taiwan is as crime-free as it gets). There are even plans to build a dedicated, circum-Taiwan bike trail.

I’d always wanted to visit Asia, where the real 99% live. However, Japan is too expensive, mainland China is a health hazard, the Philippines are crime-ridden, and Indochina is too third world. Taiwan, fully first world yet affordable, seemed perfect, especially for the sort of adventure tourism my wife and I have become addicted to: crossing or circling a country by human power alone, either biking, walking or paddling a boat. These methods provide for an intensive immersion into the country, people, and culture. Still, communication in a strange, tonal language with an ideographic written form seemed an insuperable obstacle. Until I remembered George Yen.

Our acquaintance replied that anyone could camp out anywhere and wouldn’t be troubled. Hard to imagine the “Don’t Tread on Me” bumper sticker resonating in Taiwan.

George, one of my dormmates in college, was Taiwanese. Though he’d only been an acquaintance and at that, 45 years ago, I decided to look him up in a not-so-old alumni directory. There he was with a Taipei address and a “.tw” email postfix. I wrote him hoping he remembered me, and asked for his thoughts on biking around Taiwan.

Not only did he answer that, yes, he remembered me, but that he was an avid biker, would put us up, lend us a cellphone for on-the-spot translation, and even ride a few days with us to ease our transition into the Taiwanese milieu.

In the 45 years since I’d seen him last, George had done well. He is President of Toastmasters International — what he calls his real passion — and has done the “Taiwanese Big Four”: climbed Mt. Yushan, at 12,966 ft, Taiwan’s highest peak; circled the island on a bike; swum across Sun Moon Lake; and climbed Taipei 101, the world’s third tallest building. But his day job is Chairman of the Board of Great Sequoia Corporation, an international trading company based in Taipei, and he’s managed three international joint ventures. He speaks four languages and holds an MA ininternational relationsfrom the Wharton School, along with having spent a night in a Texas jail during the ’70s (but that’s another story).

George and his wife Jorie threw out the plushest red carpet I’d ever curled my toes in. He owns the nine-story building where he lives, in one of Taipei’s nicest districts. Two stories are underground parking, accessed by a rotating car elevator. The first ground floor is his mother’s home (at 91, she still works); the second floor he rents out; the third floor is their Filipino housemaid’s digs; and he and Jorie inhabit the fifth and sixth floors (there is no fourth floor for reasons similar to Americans’ not having a thirteenth floor). The seventh floor is the family shrine and the family pug’s hangout. The eighth is a patio. Tina and I got the fifth floor.

Our first day of biking was a warmup along the Tamsui River and its tributaries’ (and distributaries’) many bike paths through Taipei to its old downtown. To rephrase the old saw, we were hippies in a head shop. Our first rest stop was next to an imposing standing stone inscribed with careful red calligraphy in a small manicured garden. When we asked its meaning, George took a Platonic approach, giving us hints about the characters in hopes we’d infer the full meaning. We could recognize the script for “two,” and he pointed out the script for “water”. While Tina and I were thinking along profound and contemplative lines, George smiled and said it was the sign for the Taipei Water District’s second water pump. We all had a good laugh.

The next stop was Taipei’s night market — not quite as bustling during the day. We were looking for lunch. Passing the snake restaurant, where delicacies included snake semen and blood dishes, Tina and I demurred, opting instead for fresh coconut water and deep-fried, ground pork dumplings at another stall.

On the way back we stopped at a large Taoist temple, the first of many temples and shrines we would pass, whose contrast with Christian churches in the west was almost too much to absorb, much less digest on a first encounter. While the baroque architectural elaboration — including gargoyles — riot of color, intricate carving and painting, main and subsidiary altars, candles and incense, icons and statues of cathedrals all had analogues — albeit radically different — it was the gestalt of the place that was striking.

There was no overarching atmosphere of awe and human insignificance, no hushed solemnity. Real or ritualized forms of abasement such as silence, a dress code, the donning or removing of head coverings or shoes, or “donations” were not required, and cameras were not prohibited. Functionaries such as monks or nuns — when present — didn’t stand out; nor did they exude an air of authority or officious sanctimoniousness so much as recede into the background like lowly maintenance staff. Individualism ruled: while some visitors performed obeisance, knelt quietly in prayer, left offerings on tables, or threw divining blocks, others conducted business, visited with acquaintances, ambled aimlessly, photographed, or just hung out. Some laughed, some sobbed, and some were inscrutable.

Taiwanese temples are not only spiritual centers; they’re community centers, marketplaces, recreation centers, parks, and museums. There are over 15,000 registered temples in Taiwan, or about one for every 1,500 people, not counting unregistered temples and roadside shrines. And the number is growing. Mosques, synagogues, and Christian churches, on the other hand, serve less than 5% of the population, with the latter catering mostly to aboriginal tribes along the east coast and up in the mountains.

Cash My-check

We headed out on our rideabout on a clear, warm day along the Tansui River bike path toward the northwest coast. George had arranged to have his cousin, Dr. Yang, a family practice M.D. and an avid biker, accompany us on the first day. Dr. Yang gave us a map of Taiwan labeled in English and Chinese script: in case we needed to ask directions, it would be legible to a local. In Tansui town we lunched on tuna hot dogs, BBQ’d squid, and sugar cane juice. An hour later George stopped at a convenience store, saying this was the last likely bathroom stop for a stretch, since we’d be heading into a more rural area. Recalling the American custom of declaring that “restrooms are for customers only,” I asked him if it was alright to use a business’s facilities without patronizing it. He answered that Taiwanese can’t conceive of refusing a bathroom to someone who needs it; in fact, we later experienced that all businesses’ bathrooms are hospitably available to anyone.

The Taiwanese are strong free marketers and proponents of private property, but they’re neither defensive nor insecure about it. In a recent poll by The Economist, people from various countries were asked whether they agreed with the statement, “Capitalism is a system that works well and should be preserved”. Only 13% of French respondents agreed, and only 52% of Americans. While 65% of mainland Chinese agreed, no separate figures for Taiwan were reported. Given the mainlanders’ responses, Taiwanese figures were doubtlessly much higher.

We saw no “No Trespassing” signs. When we were asked whether we were camping out during our ride, we answered no, because there were few campgrounds on the island, and decent lodging, in many cases, was actually cheaper than Canadian campgrounds. Our acquaintance replied — rather glibly, I thought, but echoing attitudes about bathrooms — that anyone could camp out anywhere and wouldn’t be troubled. Hard to imagine the “Don’t Tread on Me” bumper sticker resonating in Taiwan.

Our first night’s lodging was at the Chinshan Youth Activity Center, an over-the-top, towering, Fascist-architecture edifice built on splendid grounds in 1960. The accommodations were Japanese style: impeccable and tasteful, with shoji screens demarcating space, an elevated bedroom floor supplied with tatami mats, hard pillows and a comforter. Not accustomed to sleeping on the floor, Tina piled as many mats as the cupboard supplied to make us a bed.

Taiwan was ruled by the Japanese from 1895 to 1945 as an integral part of Japan. Though forcibly imposed, the occupation wasn’t brutal, except towards those who resisted — in particular the aboriginal tribes, who held out against the Imperial Army for seven years to retain their independence. The Japanese built roads and railways, modernized the bureaucracy, developed an industrial base, and treated the rest of the population as fellow citizens. Though many Taiwanese were drafted into a losing cause during WWII, today perceptions of the occupation remain mixed, with many Japanese customs surviving.

The Youth Activity Center was built by Chiang Ching-kuo (brother of Chiang Wei-kuo, and Chiang Kai-shek’s elder son) when he ran the Youth Activity Corps, long before he followed his father as president of Taiwan. Chiang pere had a yin-yang relationship with his two sons: Ching-kuo was to be taught; Wei-kuo — the adopted one — was to be loved. The Chiangs were Machiavellian, stubborn but practical, misunderstood and polarizing — while being polarized among themselves — and, ultimately, survivors all at the same time: a bit like China itself.

Until 1911, China had endured centuries of more-or-less stable, dynastic Imperial rule, the preceding 40 years or so under the Empress Dowager Cixi, a vain but cultivated woman. She was an obstinate reactionary and murderous despot who amassed a fortune in Swiss banks. History had dealt her a bad hand, which she tried to make the best of; but in the end, her malfeasance provoked insurrection.

The inspiration and intellectual catalyst for the upheaval was Sun Yat Sen, an American-educated medical doctor. Dogged, but impractically idealistic and politically naïve, Dr. Sun failed a dozen times to ignite the spark of revolution before the blaze finally caught in 1911 — ironically while he was in exile.

Back in China, he tried to guide unfolding events by founding the Nationalist Party, or Kuomintang, in 1912. But he was thwarted by remnants of the old order, provincial sectarianism, and internal factionalism. He rolled with the punches. When he sought help from abroad but was rebuffed by the democracies’ noninterventionist policies, the newly established Soviet Union came to the rescue, sending money, advisors and materiel. This aid and Sun’s declared belief in “government ownership of the means of production” fired up his leftwing base, composed of students and peasants who, with some professional help, founded the Chinese Communist Party in 1923, but alienated landlords and business, who hadn’t yet organized themselves. Enter Chiang Kai-shek.

Chiang had studied military science in Japan — which he admired — and in the Soviet Union — which he didn’t, except for its strongarm methods. After once risking his neck to save Dr. Sun’s life, he first became the doctor’s right-hand man, then leader of the Kuomintang upon Sun’s death in 1925.

Chiang covered his cards well. Not only did he manage to raise funds from opposing interests (he would acquire the nickname “Cash My-check”) — internationally from Stalin, the US, and Hitler, and internally from the moneyed classes (including China’s mafias) — but he artfully turned up the heat on the Communist frog, boiling it out of the Kuomintang in two years’ time. Afterward he embarked on a 22-year effort to annihilate the Reds, preferring to muster his resources against Mao Zedong while appeasing Japanese aggression in the belief that the Japanese would overstretch themselves in the immensity of China and finally collapse. Moreover, to Chiang the “rebels were a disease of China’s vitals, the barbarians an affliction only of the limbs.”

Disenchanted with (or perhaps not understanding) his father’s policies, Chiang Ching-kuo, left revolutionary China in 1925 to study in Moscow, a move his father did not approve, but accepted. One of his classmates there was Deng Xiaoping, the future Chinese Communist Party leader. Both would, much later, reform each of their Chinas.

Chiang Ching-kuo had the unfortunate but transformative experience of becoming a Trotskyist just before Trotsky was purged, and being in Stalin’s grasp during his father’s purge of the Chinese Communists. Nonetheless, he was allowed to marry a Russian and remained in the USSR for 12 years. Some speculate that Stalin kept him as a hostage. However, Chiang Kai-shek had absolutely no intention of stopping the war against the Communists, declaring, "I would rather have no offspring than sacrifice our nation's interests."

Meanwhile, Chiang Kai-shek sent his other son, Chiang Wei-Kuo, to study at the Munich Military Academy. There he distinguished himself and rose to the rank of lieutenant in the Wehrmacht. He commanded a Panzer unit during the Austrian Anschluss in 1938 but was recalled to China just before Hitler’s invasion of Poland.

After WWII Taiwan was returned to China. On the mainland, the balance of the civil war between the Nationalists and Communists was tilting towards the Reds. The increasingly beleaguered Nationalist government, acting like a jealous husband, treated the island like a violated woman who had “enjoyed” the experience of Japan’s occupation, by unleashing a bloody crackdown that took at least 28,000 lives and initiated 40 years of martial law known as the “White Terror.” With massive aid from the Soviet Union, Mao finally defeated Chiang Kai-shek in 1949 and drove the remnants of the Kuomintang army and anti-Communist refugees — two million in all — across the Formosa Strait to refuge in Taiwan.

Years ago, a correspondent for The Economist traveled the countryside. His starkest observation was the conspicuous absence of bugs and birds — free food obviously.

In 1978, following Chiang Kai-shek’s death in 1975, Chiang Ching-kuo assumed the presidency of the ROC at the ripe age of 68. His character having been forged in a cauldron of extremes, Ching-kuo’s wisdom had reached Confucian and Taoist proportions. In power, he undertook a series of radical changes, including lifting martial law and tolerating opposition, reforming land tenure, and — most importantly — laying the groundwork for the Taiwan Miracle with free market policies. His hand-picked successor and vice-president, Lee Teng-hui, fully democratized Taiwan during his 1988-2000 tenure.

Chiang Wei-kuo, on the other hand, commanded a tank battalion against the Japanese and Chinese Communists during WWII and the Chinese Civil War. In Taiwan, he continued to hold senior positions in the R.O.C. Armed Forces. He was promoted to Major General in 1975, and served as president of the Armed Forces University. In 1980, he became joint logistics commander in chief; then in 1986, he retired from the army, and became National Security Council secretary-General.

Christmas in Kenting

We rose at 6 AM and breakfasted on a buffet of steamed buns, scrambled eggs with corn, pork and noodle soup, salad, hard tea-boiled eggs, cabbage with extra-fatty bacon, rice gruel, green beans, and fried rice — with sesame oil, vinegar, scallions, peanuts, chili paste, and dried pork shavings for toppings (no soy sauce). The Chinese don’t care for salty food: neither salt nor soy sauce was available as a condiment; this was a bit problematic during hard, sweat-inducing exercise. Rice is consumed at every meal, though the portions are tiny. Chicken and fish are seldom boned or skinned, while meats are served with their full complement of untrimmed fat and gristle.

With its fish heads, chicken feet, whole miniature crabs, snake semen, scorpions, and countless other gag-inducing (to a westerner) ingredients, Chinese cuisine is a consequence of centuries of poverty and famine. During times of want everything remotely edible was tried and consumed. Years ago, after the People’s Republic cracked open the door to foreigners, a correspondent for The Economist traveled the countryside. His starkest observation was the conspicuous absence of bugs and birds — free food obviously. But like the trend in utilitarian clothing fashions, survival food moved upmarket, becoming — like bird’s nest soup and hundred-year-old eggs — expensive delicacies of the elite. It is all, however, impeccably prepared.

We rounded the top of the island in two days, once stopping to visit the preserved Kinkaseki forced-labor prisoner-of-war camp, where British and American servicemen mined copper for the Japanese. Before us lay the wild and precipitous east coast, home to Taiwan’s 14 aboriginal tribes, and traversed by a narrow and tunnel-studded road subject to landslides. One of them had occurred just a few days previously, closing a 15 km section. Luckily, it had not affected the railroad, which at that point ran through a long tunnel. Before leaving us, George gave instruction on using the train, and a pep talk reassuring us that we’d be all right without him. It didn’t bode well that winter’s winds and rains had returned in force and that we got lost on our first day without him.

On our fifth day we reached Taroko National Park, Taiwan’s crowning natural beauty and most visited park. In the Taroko Gorge the Liwu River has cut an extremely deep, narrow fissure through the limestone bedrock. Most of the road that traverses it has been bored through sheer rock faces like a tunnel but with one side missing, making for a spectacular ride. Picturesque shrines, waterfalls, and hanging gardens dot the wide spots and tributaries. High up in the mountains, the Taroko aboriginal tribe runs top-notch lodgings modeled on its traditional villages and serves traditional Taroko food. No way were we going to pass that up.

The ranger at the National Park information desk referred us to another ranger whose English was better. After answering our questions, she befriended us, engaging us in discussing just about everything imaginable. After an hour of conversation, she gave us gifts — DVDs, books, and souvenirs — finally hugging us and thanking us for visiting and letting her be of service to us. She was about to invite us to lunch but hesitated — I sensed — so as not to make us feel obliged.

She wasn’t unique. The rangers at Kenting National Park and the Maolin National Recreation Area were cut from the same mold, with the ranger at Maolin even bidding us goodbye with a kiss — all this from a people otherwise reputed to be shy in the display of physical affection. Can you imagine that at Yosemite?

Taiwan, as its branding logo says, had already “touched our heart.” We found somewhat wanting the otherwise misanthropic WWII US Military Attaché “Vinegar” Joe Stilwell’s description of the Chinese as “the smartest, in many ways the most civilized, in general the most charming, and certainly on the average, the best looking people in the world,” and his assistant David Barnett’s dittos to their “innate dignity and self-respect, humor, stamina, quickness of mind, and lovely women with exquisite figures.” To that list we’d add ”generosity, forbearance, patience, tolerance, hospitality, and industriousness.”

These traits are not limited to the adult population. Teenagers, sometimes edgy in the best of places, are not just polite in Taiwan; they’re warm and deferential, as well as industrious. We were mobbed by high schoolers on a field trip who wanted to practice their English. Convenience store staff — all teens and twenty-somethings — greet customers, microwave purchases, constantly scrub the floors and the use-surfaces, provide free cups, and bend over backwards to ensure a pleasant experience. In one instance they even requested a photo with us. One attendant, who’d worked at a hotel in Canada, praised his Canadian coworkers’ personalities but bemoaned their slacker work ethic.

The run down to Kenting at the southern tip of the island was relaxed, lightly populated, and brushed by Pacific winds. Near the end we were again blocked by a landslide. But this time, an alternate and very comely single-lane road, crossing over Taiwan’s central mountains through aboriginal villages, provided a welcome change of pace.

Halfway through the trip and with Christmas the following day, we took three days off to rest and see the sights in Kenting. No problem finding lodging: an enterprising B&B owner on a scooter led us to her nicely apportioned digs — only $20 per night. On Christmas day we toured the National Park with Beatriz, a 29-year-old soccer and swimming coach from Galicia. With Spanish unemployment at record levels, she’d moved to Shanghai, where wages were adequate, to work as a teacher. She was on a short holiday break, had had a bellyful of the mainland, and was hungry to speak Spanish.

Up the backside

Our strategy for the return ride up the west side of the island was to avoid the densely populated and industrial western plains by hugging the foothills of the central massif. Though the riding would be a tiring, up-and-down, rollercoaster ride across high ridges and deep river valleys, it would meander through quiet villages, medium-sized towns, tidy agricultural areas, and forest preserves — and minimize traffic.

Not that traffic was much of a problem. Stilwell’s observations applied equally to Taiwanese drivers. On the face of it, Taiwan traffic is congested and anarchic — a bicyclist’s nightmare — with vehicles sometimes going up on sidewalks or even going against the designated flow. But look deeper, and another pattern emerges. Traffic conventions are followed as rules-of-thumb, not immutable laws. In general, only speeding and turning-on-red-light violations are enforced. Accidents are usually negotiated on-the-spot, without police. Traffic is aggressive yet polite and very sensitive, giving way once you nose or step out into it. Drivers don’t honk petulantly but gently, often adding a thumbs up and a hen hao (very good). Most amazing of all was that bicyclists are not only respected but actually liked!

Weddings and funeral services — for those who can’t afford to rent a purpose-built venue — appropriate a portion of the road under elaborately tented blue tarps. In consideration of traffic, most are held on weekends. But it was the garbage collection system that really touched our hearts. Garbage trucks make their rounds in the evening, announcing their approach with a distinctive ice cream van tune. Folks hand over their bags to the collector, exchanging a few pleasantries; or he picks them up off the curb.

After restocking our wallets in Neipu we headed up into the mountains. Riding through the Maolin National Recreation Area and aboriginal preserve on a particularly long, cold, hard, rainy day we decided to rest the following day in Jia-xian. A picturesque provincial village nestled in a high river valley, Jia-xian proclaims itself the taro capital of Taiwan. Taro is a root starch one eats sautéed, fried, and even as ice cream.

We got in late, shivering and wet, and approached a group of ladies. Tina performed her where-can-we-sleep pantomime by joining her hands as if in prayer at the side of her head and angling both. One old lady motioned us to follow her. Two blocks and one turn later we arrived at a nondescript building. Tina checked out the $18 rooms but — never picking the first option — decided to look for others. The old lady who’d led us there suddenly looked disappointed and agitated. Thinking, we soon realized, that an $18 room was too expensive for us, she invited us to stay at her home — a kind offer we turned down, unable to explain.

Word soon got around of our presence at the other hotel, and we were joined for breakfast by our innkeeper’s niece, Ma Jo-shan, a local artist married to Josh, an American. They’d moved to Jia-xian to live with her elderly parents above the small grocery store they owned and ran, so her parents could share the joy of raising their grandkids. Jo invited us to tour the temples and mountaintops with her.

Mazu is my beacon, I shall not shipwreck . . .

Jia-xian’s old temple is dedicated to Mazu, Taiwan’s patroness, saint, or deity, depending on one’s outlook. While Christianity has traditionally been organized from the top down, with an authority (such as the pope) declaring who is beatified, sanctified or deified (from a non-believer’s point of view), most Eastern religions are ground-up, based on “ancestor worship,” animist traditions, and the teachings of Buddha, Lao Tzu, and Confucius (the three sages dating from about 500 BC). With no central planning, many strains of thought evolved, and are still evolving, ranging from the highly superstitious (non-empirical) to the merely respectful; and from schools of “pure tradition” to custom-built, individualized beliefs.

Eastern spiritual thought is hard to grasp from Western reports. Having first been described to the west by Christians, in often patronizing — even derogatory — terms that ignore translation difficulties and missed the depths and subtleties and the complex relationships between philosophy and religion; dogma and opinion; or worship and reverence, it’s understandable. It helps, as Lao Tzu in the Tao advised (and I paraphrase), “to have no dog in the fight.” Unlike Middle Eastern religions, which are often intolerant of one another, Eastern believers are not only tolerant of others; they also respect and even admire them, resulting in much syncretism. China has fought many wars, but they have very seldom had a religious tendency.

The garbage collection system really touched our hearts. Garbage trucks make their rounds in the evening, announcing their approach with a distinctive ice cream van tune.

Even the term “ancestor worship” is too glibly bestowed as it is not a religion but rather a practice, one that is a part of nearly all religious traditions. A better term is “ancestor veneration,” a more accurate description of what practitioners actually do, which is to cultivate kinship values such as filial piety, family loyalty, and family continuity, with rituals such as visiting graves, offering flowers and grave decorations, burning candles or incense, reciting genealogies, or simply displaying photographs in special locations. Prayer, actual worship, belief in the transformation of dead relatives into deities, or communication with them may or may not be present.

Likewise, animism is commonly misunderstood. The word literally refers to a belief thateverything — living or inanimate — has an essence: a soul, or anima, if you will; that soul need not be a spirit or ghost-like being with a potentially independent existence. Animism usually regards human beings as on a roughly equal footing with other animals, plants, natural forces and even objects — all deserving respect. Humans are considered a part of nature, not superior or separate from it. However, it is not a type of religion in itself but rather a constituent belief or virtue — analogous to polytheism, monotheism, or even filial piety — that is found in many belief systems.It is Aristotle’s elaborated version of animism that according to some scholars was appropriated by the early Christian church into the modern “soul” most of us are familiar with.

Taoism and Confucianism are often mentioned in the same breath as if they were complementary beliefs, while in reality their philosophical differences are as marked as Plato’s and Aristotle’s. Living at a time in China when Neolithic egalitarian tribes were evolving into hierarchical kingdoms, Lao Tzu and Confucius were exposed to dynamic change, the pace of which varied considerably geographically. Lao Tzu (the older of the two) came from a rural, conservative area. Confucius, on the other hand, was swept up in the new order. While Lao Tzu’s philosophy centered on preserving the old ways, Confucius embraced change. His philosophy stressed acceptance and adaptation to changing times through universal education in science and the classics. Lao Tzu advocated passivity; Confucius advocated wise action — Lao Tzu’s Ned Ludd to Confucius’ John Dewey.

Of the two, Lao Tzu was the more esoteric and metaphysical. In contrast, Confucius, fearing he might be deified after his death, ordered his disciples to burn his writings. They reluctantly did so, but then compiled what they remembered in The Analects. Today Taoism in Taiwan is a very big tent, incorporating many sages, saints, gods; beliefs, practices and ceremonies. On the other hand, Taipei’s Confucian Temple is a memorial to a man and his thought, with ceremonies held to commemorate him, not worship him or anyone.

Taiwanese Buddhism is not as ascetic, martial, or world rejecting as its Indian, Tibetan and Mongolian antecedents. It is personified by the “Happy Buddha”, a fat, smiling and goodie-laden effigy popular on vehicle dashboards and family shrines. Known as Tzu Chi or Renjian Fojiao (this-worldly) Buddhism, it encourages socially active involvement, stress reduction, and even fun. With its de-emphasis on ritual and superstition, the strain took off in the 1960’s and is now the religion of choice for middle-class urbanites and professionals. Taiwan's Buddhist population grew from 800,000 in 1983 to 4.9 million in 1995, a 600 percent increase and still growing.

As Taiwan’s patroness, Mazu is the closest thing to a pan-Taiwanese deity and gets the lioness’ share of festivals and celebrations. She is loosely lumped into the Taoist or Folk Religion pantheons, and is widely worshiped on the mainland and in Thailand, Vietnam, Malaysia, Singapore and the Chinese diaspora. It’s interesting to compare and contrast her life and legend with one of the west’s preeminent deities, Jesus Christ.

Born Lin Mo-niang in 960 in Fujian province, she died at the young age of 28 (JC at 33) — in one version — while attempting to save fishermen, including her father and brothers, from shipwreck after a typhoon (JC died attempting to save mankind from original sin — an alleged transgression by our legendary ancestors). Many stories, and later miracles, of seafaring rescues are attributed to her. Of exceptional intelligence, she was a sponge for knowledge, mastering Taoist and Buddhist texts at an early age and gaining repute as a female priest (though little is known about Jesus’ education, he sought what I would summarize as enlightenment through fasting and isolation in the desert for 40 days — a transcendent approach — in contrast to Mazu’s world-immersion education). She never claimed to be divine, as Jesus did. Nonetheless, she is — mostly — worshiped as the Goddess of the Sea and Empress of Heaven; in addition to being the patroness of childbirth, because she didn’t cry at birth (Jesus was, reputedly, virginally conceived).

Today she’s even become a political soccer ball, with the PRC getting her inscribed on UNESCO’s intangible heritage list in order to win hearts in the ROC.

Closing the circle

North of Jia-xian we passed through soursop and wax apple orchards; coconut groves, pineapple fields, and rice paddies; shrimp farms, and kowtowed papaya trees bent short to ease picking and to allow the entire grove to be covered by protective netting. A couple of days from Taipei a young biker caught up to us. Taking a break between high school and college, she was on the first day of a solo ride around the island, and was bursting at the seams with enthusiasm tinged with just a touch of apprehension. Feeding the former, we allayed the latter.

Taiwan’s school system is hard to fathom, and I still haven’t quite worked out its incentives. Generally, the better performing kids go to public schools, while the remainder attend private ones. Huh? Yes, public schools are free, but there’s a catch — they have high admission and retention standards. Private schools accept all comers, but they charge. Individual tutors — outside the formal education system — are ubiquitous, affordable or not.

Riding into Taipei, we were again joined by a lone biker, this time a fit elderly gentleman, who, spotting our kit, assumed we were circumnavigating the island. We confirmed his suspicion. To celebrate, he invited us out to dinner, an invitation that took us by surprise but that Tina immediately accepted. He was 73, just retired (opining that Asians work too much), and had just graduated his youngest from college. Free at last from parental obligations, he was ready to bike the world and wanted to plumb our experience. Kung Gung-ho, besides his good English, spoke French: he had his eyes on the Atlantic coast of France. He’d already rounded Taiwan. His dream was to do one big bike trip a year for the next five years.

Over dessert, it was my turn to pick his brain. I asked him about Taiwan’s health care system. Surprised at my interest in something so mundane, he accommodatingly switched gears.

Taiwan has a compulsory, government-run, single-payer National Health Insurance scheme established in 1995, modeled — according to Dr. Michael Chen, CFO of the NHI — on America’s Medicare system. Public and private providers coexist, and the system covers traditional Chinese medicine. At 2%, the NHI has the lowest administrative costs in the world. Private insurance is available alongside the NHI for greater freedom of choice. There is a 70% patient satisfaction rate. Nevertheless, the NHI is unsustainable and going broke.

The government is not taking in enough money to cover the services it provides, so it is borrowing money from banks. Because the revenue base is capped, the plan does not keep pace with the increase in national income, or increased costs. Premiums are regulated by politicianswho are afraid to raise premiums because of the voters. Price controls are beginning to rear their ugly heads.

Office visits are as low as $5 US. Gung-ho (literally, work together) blamed his own age group for abusing the system. Believing they’ve paid up front for a service, the elderly set out with a vengeance to get their money’s worth by visiting doctors regularly and often, and getting prescriptions they didn’t intend to use.

Gung-ho ordered a round of green tea ice cream, paid the bill, and parted with this “ancestor worship” blessing:

Around me I wear an invisible coat of many colors, fabrics and texture. It is made of friends and family, here and no longer here, far and not so far. They are all part of my coat which keeps me warm wherever I go. It is a coat that is always in style and never wears out. You are now part of my coat.

George and Jorie welcomed us back in typical Taiwanese fashion: by taking us out to a traditional banquet. Over one too many sakes, Tina and I embarrassed ourselves with superlatives: about the dinner, the trip, our hosts, the country, the people, their religious and philosophical views, the infrastructure, even EVA Airlines our carrier — you name it.

So I asked them what the overall Taiwanese tax burden was. After a little reflection, doubtlessly influenced by the conviviality, George answered, “25%”, adding a rant about the cost and red tape of doing business in New York. If true, a light bulb flashed in my head.

Reflecting back to countless times when my leftwing friends had threatened to emigrate to Canada (or France, or wherever) if such-or-such rightwing politician got elected president of the United States, I realized that my rightwing friends had no such prospective refuge. Well, I can now offer them one: Taiwan — a destination that ought to be equally attractive to my other friends as well.




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The Budget Charade

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On April 10 President Obama submitted his fiscal 2014 budget to Congress. Sixty-five days late and 2,400 pages long, it calls for $3.77 trillion in spending, with a projected deficit of $744 billion. It turns off the automatic budget cuts imposed by sequestration, and thus increases federal spending by some $160 billion over fiscal 2013. Its projections assume that over $5 trillion will be added to the national debt during the next ten years.

One never quite gets used to these figures; they boggle the mind. Only 50 years ago the federal government’s annual budget was under $100 billion (about $700 billion in today’s money), and deficits were small. Then the irresponsible policies of Lyndon Johnson (guns and butter: massive domestic spending increases and a major war fought without raising taxes) and Richard Nixon (fiat money replacing gold) began America’s descent into virtual bankruptcy. Johnson opened the floodgates of deficit spending. Nixon launched the lamentable decline of the once almighty dollar.

Deficit spending and fiat money have a symbiotic relationship; they march together on the path to fiscal doom. The policies of every succeeding president have only made these problems worse. Needless to say, Congress has been equally irresponsible, whether under Democrat or Republican leadership. It is the votes of Congress, after all, that transform bad economics into law.

Only 50 years ago the federal government’s annual budget was under $100 billion (about $700 billion in today’s money), and deficits were small.

The president’s budget proposals were preceded by those of the Senate and the House. In late March the Democrat-controlled Senate passed a budget that increases taxes by almost $1 trillion over ten years, while still adding over $5 trillion to the national debt. “The only good news is that the fiscal path the Democrats laid out in their budget resolution won’t become law,” said Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell. That’s true, but on the other hand I can’t see the Congress passing a budget that will be much of an improvement over the Democrats’ plan. Certainly the Republican-led House provided nothing but faux leadership on the issue.

The Republicans in the House unveiled their budget a few days before the Senate acted. House Budget Committee chairman Paul Ryan produced a plan based on political impossibilities. It repeals Obamacare. It turns Medicare into a voucher program. Neither of these ideas has the slightest chance of becoming law anytime soon, and Ryan knows it. Ryan’s budget reduces the top tax rate from 35 to 25%, eliminates the alternative minimum tax, and repeals the tax increases contained in Obamacare, yet assumes that revenues will remain level. It says nothing about which loopholes it will close and which deductions it will eliminate to make the revenue projection real. In other words, it is a through-and-through political document, and not a serious plan designed to bring spending and deficits under control. Even if its fantastical proposals were enacted, it would still require ten years to bring the budget into balance.

Given the Great Recession, it is practically impossible to balance the budget in ten years’ time — the risk of sending the economy into a tailspin of 1930s proportions is just too great. But no officeholder has put forward a serious proposal to balance the budget on any timetable. The one attempt to do so, flawed though it may be, is the plan offered in 2010 by the Simpson-Bowles commission. Unfortunately, the politicians, led by the president (Obama) who created the commission, have done nothing to implement its recommendations. Simpson-Bowles allows 40 years to get to a balanced budget. Yet no politician will touch it, beyond giving it mild and passing praise. The “sacrifices” it entails are apparently too great for politicians to contemplate.

In his budget Obama proposed a change in the way in which cost-of-living increases for Social Security recipients are figured. This small, helpful step saves a few billion a year, but does not address the root problem, which is demographic. And while Obama claims he will cut $400 billion from Medicare over ten years, the savings are supposed to be found by cutting payments to providers, a sure recipe for reducing the number of doctors who will take Medicare patients. In any case, if this is all the Democrats are prepared to do on entitlement reform (and the left wing of the party is up in arms about even these small changes), then surely insolvency (for Medicare at least) is inevitable.

We have a spending problem. It’s a problem that cannot be resolved by simply raising taxes. Both the welfare and the warfare state require drastic reform, as does the tax code. And generational oppression — the old sucking up resources at the expense of the young — must be curbed. Yet where is the political will or wisdom to accomplish these necessary things? It is utterly lacking. What then does the future hold?

I predict that the idea of inflating our way out of debt will at some point take hold in political, academic, and media circles. Such a course would deal a death blow to the dollar, and leave wage earners, savers, and other responsible people even worse off than they are now. But it might get the politicians off the hook, at least temporarily. The pols will blame anyone and everyone but themselves for the inflation they have created, and retire on indexed pensions while the rest of us eat grass.

We seem set on this course already. In the 1980s Federal Reserve chairman Paul Volcker killed the inflationary dragon that had plagued the world economy for a decade and more. It has until now stayed dead; indeed, deflation is the worry of the moment. But in the wake of the Great Recession, central bankers, egged on by politicians, have been printing money like crazy. With the Federal Reserve, the Bank of Japan, the European Central Bank, and the Bank of England all engaged in “quantitative easing,” the return of the dragon looks inevitable at some point. A world awash in fiat money must suffer inflation eventually.

Where is the political will or wisdom to accomplish these necessary things? It is utterly lacking.

Central bankers believe that they will know when to turn off the printing presses. They envision themselves acting at just the right moment to prevent the outbreak of serious inflation. This seems about as likely as an investor timing the market correctly — that is, the chance of getting it right appears very small. The question of timing aside, turning off the presses is certain to cause a crash in the bond market and a rise in interest rates, with dire consequences not just for the arbitrageurs, but for the world economy. History provides little comfort for those who believe in the capacity of central bankers to prevent economic catastrophe. Volcker may have saved the world economy back in the early ’80s, but he stands almost alone. The behavior of central bankers today reminds one of Alan Greenspan’s abysmal performance during his last decade as Fed chairman. One may even be justified in comparing the central bankers of today to John Law.

A bargain (grand or otherwise) between Democrats and Republicans over the federal budget is unlikely to do more than put off the day of reckoning. The necessary, thoroughgoing reforms are so politically unpalatable that they will almost certainly never be enacted. The budget process in Washington is a charade. And so I ask myself, can I learn to like the taste of grass?




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The Clichés Come Home to Roost in Cyprus

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The clichés are frequent, abundant, and apt: have your cake and eat it too; kick the can down the road; squeeze the tube of toothpaste; see the chickens come home to roost — in that order. They are being used these days to describe financial crises and political responses to financial crises. A couple of years ago, writing about the role of Greece in the ongoing euro monetary-financial crisis, I said that the “contradiction is between the love of state largesse and the limits of governments’ ability to raise revenue,” and I suggested (unoriginally) that Greece might be a domino to tip other dominos (more clichés).

Now Cyprus. It’s the latest hotspot in the euro crisis. If you read or listen to news supplied by the mass media here in the US, you know that Cypriot banks are on the ropes. You know that they have a lot of euro-denominated deposits, including somefrom tax-dodging or money-laundering Russians. And you know that a bailout is in the works. However, unless you think or read more deeply, you don’t know how the situation in Cyprus fits into the bigger picture of euro zone troubles.

Even if you read The Economist, as I do, you only get a hint. In its March 30, 2013 issue, it got through two articles on the Cyprus bailout while barely mentioning how that was precipitated by Greece. I’m not saying there is a media conspiracy to obscure the facts, but there is a tendency to avoid speaking of and maybe even to avoid thinking of the complex and unsettling cause and effect relationships among the various financial unbalances in European banks, treasuries, and currencies. (Yes, I know there is supposed to be only one euro, but more on that below.)

Why would those rich Russians trust banks in miniscule Cyprus? Because the deposits were in Europe, in the euro zone, denominated in euros, and implicitly guaranteed by Europe.

The Economist said, “The troubles of the two banks were caused, some believe, by a decision to buy Greek government bonds that were then restructured.” It said thisonly in the context of an article mentioning that Cypriots feel like victims, in this case of the “restructuring.”

That sentence from The Economist does everything wrong. It directs us away from the truth that the euro mess is a great tangle of interrelationships with “moral hazard” at every knot. And it downplays important circumstances, employing euphemisms. “Troubles” should be “failures”; “some believe” should be deleted; “a decision” should be followed by a statement of the reasons and motivations for the decision; and “restructured” means “defaulted.”

As a corrective, I’ll tell you what I think is going on, preferring clichés to euphemisms.

How does a miniscule country get pumped up on foreign deposits? Why would those rich Russians trust banks in Cyprus? Because the deposits were in Europe, in the euro zone, denominated in euros, and implicitly guaranteed by Europe. That’s an example of having your cake and eating it too. The “cake” is having a hard currency that does not fluctuate against any other currency in the euro zone and can be freely transferred among all euro-zone countries, since it’s supposed to be the same currency. “Eating it too” is failing, as a nation, to have the reforms, institutions, sovereign finances, and controls in place that would justify the currency’s value and stability.

The deposits in Cypriot banks, like all deposits, are loans. The banks had to invest the money. They bought Greek government bonds — more cake being had and eaten. The Greek bonds were paying better interest than, say, German bonds. That should tell you something, but they were supposed to be risk-free, again because of the implicit guarantee of Europe.

The Greek crisis, going back at least to 2004, is now nearly a decade-long process of kicking the can down the road. The can is, of course, severe economic pain that may take the form of extreme austerity, high inflation, and currency devaluation (which would require exit from the euro and, in the case of Greece, the dreaded “Grexit”). The bits of pain that were inflicted along the way — on bondholders, employees, and taxpayers — have always and ever been insufficient to constitute really doing something with the can other than kicking it.

The crisis in Cyprus demonstrates that Europe’s restructuring of Greek debt and bailouts of the Greek treasury were also largely examples of squeezing the tube of toothpaste. One pinches the problem here, and it bulges out over there. One collapse delayed begets another threat of collapse that demands immediate attention.

Cyprus may remain in the euro in name only. A euro that cannot leave Cyprus has a value different from and lesser than a euro that can travel freely.

Now, one or two birds at a time, the big flock of chickens is beginning to come home to roost. In the Cypriot bank bailout deal, bank shareholders are wiped out. They get nothing. Some bondholders are wiped out. Depositors are restricted from getting their money; there are daily withdrawal limits; and currency controls are in place. Some depositors, the uninsured with balances above 100,000, will not get all their money back; they will see their deposits converted to bank shares, probably worthless. In theory, smaller deposits are secure, and Cyprus keeps the euro.

The tough conditions for the bailout, ostensibly required by a commission composed of the European Central Bank, the European Commission, and the IMF, but in substance required by Germany, are the price for Cyprus “staying in the euro,” and that is the main goal of the bailout. But it is not clear that Cypriot euros are still the same as other euros. In other words, Cyprus may remain in the euro in name only. A euro that cannot leave Cyprus has a value different from and lesser than a euro that can travel freely. Such a euro sits in Cypriot banks, from which it can’t be freely withdrawn. The bailout may fail to render the banks solvent. The risk of insolvency, the restrictions on withdrawal, and the currency controls all undermine the value of the deposits.

Enter Gresham’s law: bad money drives out good — if the exchange rate is fixed by the state. In this case the bad money, Cypriot euros, drives out the good money, other euros, other currencies, precious metals, and other stores of value, because the exchange rate is fixed by law and by definition: euros are supposed to be euros. That’s what monetary union was supposed to mean. The troika cannot let the Cypriot euro float; that would be an immediate, rather than slow, failure of the bailout plan; therefore, the official exchange rate between the Cypriot euro and the real euro will be 1:1. Cypriots will withdraw their bad money as fast as they can. They will hoard good money. They will seek opportunities to spend or exchange their bad money at the official rate. Goods will leave the country to be sold for good money to be held abroad. Scarcity will reign. Cyprus will impose export controls (a usual next step after the imposition of currency controls), turning many of its people into criminals. In the 1980s, I saw this in Bénin, where after a period of currency controls, the markets were utterly bare and smugglers were being shot on sight. Next door in Togo, the markets overflowed with goods, including, I suppose, goods from Bénin.

There is much more to be said, about the near-certain collapse of the Cypriot economy, about “contagion” — the fear that similar blows will strike depositors in other weak euro zone countries, and the resultant capital flight — about many more chickens coming home to roost, about the suffering of men, women, and children, and about whose fault it is.

But the topic is depressing. I begin to feel sympathy for the journalists and reporters who do not dwell on these things. I’ll kick this can down the road.




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A Sincere Change of Heart?

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The old adage wisely instructs us to “give credit where credit is due.” I am about to give credit to someone to whom I have given extremely scant credit before: our current president. Obama is apparently doing something I want him to do: he is advocating more FTAs — free trade agreements.

This is a surprising — nay, mindboggling — reversal of the course he took during his first four years. In his first term, he started trade wars with Mexico, Canada, and other places. He stalled, until late in that term, any action on the three residual FTAs that President Bush had left him (with Colombia, Panama, and South Korea). And he generally mouthed the labor union line that free trade “steals” “American” jobs.

But shortly before his reelection, he caved. In the face of a clearly stagnant economy he signed the three FTAs. He has now gone farther. In some of his recent speeches, he has advocated two new large FTA deals — one with the EU, and one — initially proposed by Bush — called the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). He is in favor of concluding those deals quickly. (The US started participating in the TPP negotiations under Bush in 2008.)

Obama backed the notion of an EU deal in his state of the union address, saying, “Tonight, I’m announcing that we will launch talks on a comprehensive trans-Atlantic trade and investment partnership with the European Union . . . because trade that is fair and free across the Atlantic supports millions of good-paying American jobs.”

Of course, free trade with anywhere supports millions of “good-paying” jobs. This proposition has been urged by mainstream economists ever since the debacle of the Smoot-Hawley tariffs — or for that matter since Adam Smith. It has recently been brilliantly explored by Daniel Griswold in his primer on the subject, Mad about Trade (which I have reviewed for these pages). Obama is, it seems, only just learning this.

The trade deal with the EU would be huge. The economies of the EU and the US together constitute over half of world GDP, and the trade between them already accounts for one-third of all trade flows.Not commonly known in the US, but explored in detail in Griswold’s book, is the fact that as of 2010, US private investment in France and Belgium (combined) exceeded US private investment in China and India (combined). According to some estimates, an EU-USA FTA would likely add as much as 1.5% to GDP growth in both regions.

Of course, free trade with anywhere supports millions of “good-paying” jobs. President Obama is, it seems, only just learning this.

Concluding the TPP would also be huge. It would greatly expand the current, modest FTA called the Trans-Pacific Strategic Economic Partnership (“P4” or “TPSEP”), which includes Brunei, Chile, New Zealand, and Singapore. The proposed TPP would embrace Australia, Canada, Malaysia, Mexico, Peru, Vietnam, and us. Japan has just announced that it will join the TPP talks as well. Obama hasn’t commented on the Japanese dimension, but he has indicated that he favors the TPP, viewing it as his “pivot” toward Asia.

There would be great advantage to including Japan in a large free trade zone with the US. The other nations with whom we are negotiating either have FTAs already (Australia, Canada, Chile, and Mexico), or are very small potatoes economically (Brunei, New Zealand, Malaysia, Peru, and so on). Japan, by contrast, is a country with which we have no FTA, and is the third largest economy on earth.

But as happy as I am that Obama seems to be seeing the light, I find myself filled with doubts.

Start with the fact that the president is a notorious liar and dissembler. As a senator, he feigned support for immigration reform but covertly helped kill Bush’s bill, and in the two years in which his party controlled both houses of Congress he refused to introduce a bill of his own. Yet he campaigned for reelection promising — comprehensive immigration reform!

Similarly, as a senator and during his first term (to which he was elected with enormous contributions from union funds) he fought off or stalled all free trade measures. Now he favors free trade? One can be forgiven for wondering whether his conversion is sincere.

Doubt also arises from the question of how persuasive Obama can be on the issue. The opponents of the new FTAs will use his own past arguments against him — the canards about free trade costing jobs, about its resulting in the famous “race to the bottom,” and so on.

Most importantly, the new FTAs are fraught with special difficulties. Let’s begin with the EU. The problem lies with countries such as France, which is highly unlikely to open its domestic manufacturing sector to true competition. The French are notorious for protecting their film and other “cultural” industries by import quotas and direct subsidies. They are famed for their inventiveness in erecting “non-tariff barriers” to trade. And they just elected a Socialist government that loathes free-market economics (which leftist Europeans disparagingly call “neoliberal economic theory”).

The opponents of the new free trade agreements will use Obama's own past arguments against him — the canards about free trade costing jobs, about its resulting in the famous “race to the bottom,” and so on.

Especially contentious is the issue of agricultural imports. America has always been an agricultural hyperpower, thanks to the vast expanse of its arable land and the incredible productivity of its farmers. American farmers have been at the forefront of agronomic invention, from the use of tractors to the use of GPS (global positioning satellite location finding) to the genetic manipulation of grains. France, in particular, and Europe, in general, oppose the sale of genetically modified foods, and are lavish in their subsidization of their farmers.

With unemployment running high in many EU countries — especially Greece and Spain, where it approaches 25%, or about what the US suffered during the Great Depression — an FTA with America will be a tough sell. The average European is as much a believer in populist economic fallacies as the average American, and especially in the myth that free trade costs domestic jobs. (It’s always funny how opponents on both sides of an FTA can argue that it will send jobs over to the other side).

You can catch a glimmer of the difficulty in clenching this deal when you hear Karel De Gucht, no less than the EU trade commissioner, who is pitching an FTA with the US to lower the automobile tariffs that make cars so expensive in Europe, hasten to assure France that it would never be required to dismantle its subsidies and quotas on cultural industries.

Even more problematic will be an FTA that involves Japan. The Japanese certainly want the benefits an FTA with America would bring, such as an end to the tariff we impose on their automobiles — a tariff that runs as high as 25%. If these tariffs were eliminated, Japan’s auto imports alone would jump by perhaps 6%. (No doubt this is why the UAW, the AFL-CIO, and the domestic automakers are alarmed at the very idea of ending those tariffs). But Japan is erecting large obstacles to an early deal for true free trade. They are aggressively “pulling a Bernanke,” that is, weakening the value of the yen, so that Japanese manufactured goods will drop in price compared to American goods. This would rather quickly reduce the impact of our tariff barriers.

An even more significant problem is the fact that a real FTA that included Japan would immediately open Japanese farmers to massive competition by America’s vastly more efficient agriculture. To cite one example: Japan imposes a stunning 778% tariff on imported rice. In other words, Japan’s rice farmers are so comparatively inefficient that they need to be protected by a tariff of nearly eight-fold the American price — a whole new meaning for the Eightfold Way!

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who decided to join the TPP talks, already faces opposition to his move, and has promised, “I will protect Japan’s agriculture and its food at all costs.” That doesn’t make it sound as if there were much chance of a major deal to open trade on both sides.

Over the long term, of course, competition would be good, very good, for Japan. Its citizens would get cheaper food, enabling them to buy more of other things or save more capital to create or expand competitive industries. Free trade would free up people from the farms, enabling them to work more creatively and productively in knowledge-based industries. This would be a major advantage, given that Japan’s population is aging rapidly.

But economics is not the same as culture. In a nation as socially cohesive and static as if Japan, it will be very difficult to convince people to allow their farm industry to shrink. Yet you don’t need to be Japanese to succumb to the myths of protectionism. Populist economics is popular all over the world because, well, the populace is basically the same all over the world. As Hayek noted, our evolution from hunter-gatherers has left us with instincts that are often counterproductive.

If Obama really has seen the light — about which, again, I am skeptical — he would do better to emulate Bush. Go for bilateral FTAs with countries with whom we have a better chance of success. I would urge him to focus on just two countries: Brazil and India. I will be brief here, having discussed the possibility of an FTA with Brazil elsewhere.

Start with the fact that bilateral FTAs are inherently easier to negotiate, since the special interest groups, those omnipresent rentseekers, are easier to hold in check, being fewer than those aroused by action on a broader front.

In a nation as socially cohesive and static as if Japan, it will be very difficult to convince people to allow their farm industry to shrink.

Second, note that while countries such as Japan and France are very culturally homogeneous, Brazil and India are, like the US, ethnically and culturally diverse. Such diversity tends to lessen (though not to eliminate) the tribalist-populist impulse to fear trade with the Other.

Third, Brazil and India are big countries. Brazil, with 200 million citizens, is the fifth largest country in population, and India is the second largest. Unlike Japan and most of Europe, Brazil and India are still growing in population, so they will have a young labor force for decades to come. They are likelier than other countries to allow the importation of food, and more eager to gain access to our manufactured goods markets.

Finally, both countries are growing economically at a fast clip. Brazil already has the world’s sixth largest economy. Both are nations whose greatest economic growth lies in their future, not their past.

They seem altogether better bets than those the administration is pursuing. Maybe — my recurring skepticism whispers — that is why the administration isn’t pursuing them.

ldquo;race to the bottom,

ldquo;race to the bottom,




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The Land where the Statues Walked

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Early on Easter morning, 1722, Dutch explorer Jacob Roggeveen spied land in the distance and set his sails for the tiny island. His men grew puzzled and anxious as they neared the coast, for they could see giants lining the shore. But as they drew nearer they realized that these sentries were not moving; the giants were stone statues. Roggeveen and his men were probably the first Europeans ever to see the stunning monoliths. They called the place Easter Island. The residents call it Rapa Nui. It is a tiny dot in the ocean, barely fourteen miles long and seven miles wide, over 2,000 miles from the coast of Chile and 1,300 miles from Pitcairn Island, its nearest neighbor. Pitcairn Island is sometimes regarded as the remotest place on earth.

Since that day nearly 300 years ago, the mystique of Easter Island has increased. Why were the statues with the elongated heads and comical expressions carved? How were they transported as many as six miles from a volcanic quarry to their seaside platforms? Who toppled them during the 19th century, and why?

In 1956 Norwegian anthropologist Thor Heyerdahl sailed to the island on the raft “Kon-Tiki” and encouraged the island’s governor to raise one of the 80-ton statues back to its standing position. Heyerdahl’s book and lectures created a new awareness of the mysterious stone heads, and they began appearing in works as diverse as National Geographic and Bugs Bunny cartoons. It was in this atmosphere that my own lifelong fascination with ancient artifacts began.

Love among the ruins

All my life I have longed to see the mysterious statues on Easter Island. When I was 8 years old, my father was going to college and majoring in history. One day I stayed home from school with a stomach ache, and he couldn’t miss class, so he took me with him. The course was about ancient civilizations. The professor showed pictures of Stonehenge, Machu Picchu, and the giant statues, called moai, of Easter Island. I was hooked for life. I asked more questions than anyone else in the class that day, and afterward the professor told my father that I was a prodigy. I didn’t know what that meant, but I could tell it was something good.

Since then I have had the opportunity to visit the ruins of ancient temples in Greece, Rome, and Central America. I have stood in the theaters where Paul taught the Ephesians and Corinthians and where Oedipus Rex was first performed. I visited Stonehenge when people were still allowed to touch the stones. I’ve been to Machu Picchu and Tikal and Chichén Itzá and the Great Pyramids of Egypt. But Easter Island eluded me. Three times I came as close as Santiago, Chile, but flights to the island were so infrequent that I was never able to travel the final 2,300 miles and make it to the island.

Until now. When my daughter Hayley’s tour with Disney on Ice ended up in Chile with a week off between shows, she decided to visit Easter Island. No way was she going to get there before I did! So thanks to my adventuresome daughter, I finally visited the moai of Rapa Nui.

What an indescribable thrill! It was, as Hayley said several times, the best vacation ever. We knew we would see statues; we had no idea that we would explore caves, swim in tide pools, watch gigantic ice-blue waves crash against the rocks, climb mountains of lava, or ride four-wheelers around the entire island. It was magical. Simply magical. Even sacred in a way. Every hour we said, “If this was all we did, it would be enough.” And then we did more.

It was drizzling rain when we landed at Rapa Nui. The season was winter, after all, so I had prepared for the Antarctic winds that, as the guide books said, often flow through. But our weather app was predicting temps in the high 60s or even low 70s. Could we be so fortunate?

We found our lodgings through airbnb.com, an organization that matches travelers with local residents who are willing to sublet their homes to short-term visitors. My family has used this site to rent houses and apartments all over the world, always with satisfactory results. We have stayed in a rustic log cabin in North Carolina, a sleek modern apartment in Madrid, and a modest but quaint home in Dublin, to name a few.

Alvaro, our host, gave us a quick tour around the town before taking us to our hotel, a small bungalow-style facility right in the middle of Main Street. The center courtyard was surrounded by palm trees and hibiscus bushes, and Alvaro spread his map on the table there to show us where he would be taking us. We shared a kitchenette with other residents and met in the courtyard for breakfast. It was a very relaxed, cozy place to stay.

The town is beyond rustic — the road in front of the tiny government house isn't even paved! We never saw a large shopping center, or even a grocery store that was larger than a 7-11. They don't have a movie theater on the island. But the restaurants were outstanding. After a quick lunch of freshly made empanadas at a restaurant half a block away from Alvaro's place (it was hard to call it a "hotel"), we joined a small tour of seven people, including four Disney on Ice skaters. Alvaro recognized our venturesome spirit and took us to many of his favorite family beaches and caves, off the beaten path (not that there are many beaten paths on Rapa Nui). He also arranged our schedule so that we avoided the early-morning bus tours.

Alvaro grew up on Rapa Nui and is a direct descendant of King Jean I, who invaded the island in the 19th century and made himself king. His grandfather was the mayor of Rapa Nui when Heyerdahl arrived in the mid-1950s; he oversaw the raising of the first moai in modern times. Alvaro knows his history and loves the island. We loved his enthusiastic hospitality.

Off the beaten path

Since it was drizzling that day, Alvaro first took us to visit some caves. The island was created by a volcanic eruption, and it is a veritable Swiss cheese of lava tubes, many of them extending more than a mile. It was not unusual for people to live in these caves. Alvaro told us that his grandmother hid in a cave for two months when she was young because she didn’t want to consummate her arranged marriage. Eventually she went back to her husband, but he understood that she did not love him. Later she fell in love with Alvaro’s grandfather and lived with him the rest of her life (Catholics don’t divorce, so they lived in sin . . .)

We knew we would see statues; we had no idea that we would explore caves, swim in tide pools, watch gigantic ice-blue waves crash against the rocks, climb mountains of lava, or ride four-wheelers around the entire island.

Alvaro had discovered one such cave just a week or so earlier, when he noticed the top of a tree at ground level and realized that the trunk had to be growing out of a cave. He was anxious to explore it further, and we were just the group to accompany him. We climbed down to the entrance and ducked inside. There we followed the tunnel as far as we could, grateful for the helmets and flashlights Alvaro provided. We explored a side tunnel as far as it led us, crouching down as it became more and more shallow. It dropped off at the end, so several of us shinnied down to see what was there, using a thick tree root as a rope to ease ourselves down and pull ourselves back up. Then we went back to a larger cave near the road, where a few other tourists were milling around at the entrance, getting ready to leave. Once again we explored to the very end of the tunnel, and had to climb out through a hole in the ceiling! What an adventure — and we hadn’t even visited the moai yet.

The moai average 40 feet in height and 80 tons in weight. Earth and sand have built up over the years, making it appear that they are merely heads. But most of them have torsos that extend to the thighs, and a few of them are full bodied. Their arms hang at their sides, with their hands held neatly over their abdomens. The bodies are carved from the yellowish stone of Rana Raraku, located at the bulbous northern tip of the island.

Most of the statues wear cylindrical topknots of contrasting red lava. These hats, called "pukau," weigh as much as 12 tons each, so it was quite a feat to move them to the statues and lift them to the top of the heads. Alvaro told us that they represent the bun that many Rapa Nui men still wear high on their heads (although I had to wonder which came first, the stone hat or the men's hair bun). These pukau were made at Puna Pau, a red-lava quarry in the center of the island, 12 kilometers from the sulphur-rich quarry where the bodies of the statues were made. Several top knots dot the hillside at Puna Pau, and dozens of statues are found lying in transit across the island, indicating that something dramatic happened to end the statue-making suddenly. No one knows exactly what it was.

Near Puna Pau is Ahu Akivi, the site of the seven moai that face the sea. All others face inward, standing on burial platforms called ahu. The statues represented the deceased leaders of tribal families — so much for my theory that they were supposed to scare away intruders by appearing to be giant soldiers. Alvaro told us that these sea-facing statues at Ahu Akivi, known as the Seven Explorers, represent the seven original men to arrive on Rapa Nui from Polynesia. Another feature that sets this group apart from the rest of the moai is the absence of skeletons found under the ahu, indicating that this is a memorial, not a mausoleum. The third and most remarkable feature of this ahu is that it marks the summer solstice, December 21, when the statues face the sunset straight on instead of at an angle.

Back in town we watched the sun set, and then had dinner at Te Moana, where the meals were so beautifully presented that we took pictures. Banana leaves lined the plates, and exotic flowers decorated them. The food was delicious and elegant, the best teriyaki chicken and grilled pineapple we’ve ever eaten. This quality of food was an unexpected delight on a rustic island, where we didn’t even have hot water for our showers.

We were in bed and asleep by 10 pm, so thrilled to be on this enchanting island and so delighted by the day’s surprises. It was sort of like camping out, as there was no heat in the room, and no hot water, despite the fact that it was probably 40 degrees outside. We shivered under our single blankets. I got up during the night to put on a long sleeved shirt and spread my ski jacket over my bed. Roosters woke us at 5:30 am, but it was so dark that I didn’t get up until almost 9. Then I hurried to shower. The tepid water made me shiver, but the air was so much colder that I didn’t want to leave the shower once I got wet. As I put on my watch I realized that I was two hours early — my phone hadn’t adjusted to the new time zone. We all laughed about it. It was part of the adventure. And it gave us more time for exploring the shoreline before going on the tour.

High winds had blown away the clouds, giving us clear blue skies for our visit to Rapa Nui National Park, the site of the main quarry and the largest number of extant moai. Alvaro recommended that we start our full day tour at 10:30, so we would avoid the tour-bus crowds. Bus tours normally begin at 9, so by the time we reached each spot, they were already gone. The later start gave us time Saturday morning to walk down to the shore, climb around on the rocks, and watch the waves spew foam into the tide pools. We could see surfers in the distance preparing to ride the waves. As we headed back to the hotel for the tour we all agreed: Even if we didn’t have the statues to see, this would still be the best vacation ever.

But we did have statues to see — and I had waited 50 years to see them. Yet this was such a last-minute trip that I was virtually unprepared. I was kicking myself for not at least buying a travel guide. Fifty years to get here, and I had no idea what I wanted or needed to see.

As it turned out, however, that was the perfect way to visit this island. Every moment was unexpected. Every hour brought another surprising discovery. I didn’t have a clear picture in my mind of what I would be seeing, so it was all brand new. And Alvaro was the perfect host. He fed off our enthusiasm and shared aspects of his island as though we were friends, even taking us to his family’s favorite camping and picnicking sites. When he took us to a small cave where his family used to camp out when he was a kid, I asked whether they still go here. He shrugged his shoulders and said they don’t because the privacy is gone. “You never know when a tourist might show up.” He said it matter-of-factly, without any tinge of animosity. This was the attitude we encountered throughout our stay. It was welcoming and refreshing.

The statues represented the deceased leaders of tribal families — so much for my theory that they were supposed to scare away intruders by appearing to be giant soldiers.

As we caught sight of the ocean in the distance, with its deep blue water and massive ice blue waves, one of the Disney skaters asked, “Can we stop and take a picture?” Alvaro was pleased to comply, but I’m sure he was thinking, “You ain’t seen nothin’ yet!” Our first real stop was the Blow Hole, where powerful waves spew a geyser of steam-like water through a fissure in the rocks. Of course, Hayley and her friend Taylor climbed down to the blow hole so I could take pictures as water roiled around them. We could see the remains of broken moai nearby. These remnants cover this island. You see them everywhere, once you know how to spot them.

Further up the coast we visited an ahu where the toppled moai have not been re-erected. Most of the moai were knocked down during tribal wars several centuries ago, and it is very expensive to repair and lift them. It costs about $10 million to restore an ahu, so most of the restorations have been conducted by organizations from other countries, especially universities and archeological teams. The most photographed set of moai was restored by a Japanese crane company in the mid-1990s. What a great advertising gimmick, to show their cranes lifting these 80-ton monoliths! And what a boon for the island to see the moai watching over the islanders again.

But still, I had not yet seen a standing statue from the classical period — not with my own eyes. Alvaro pointed out a large moai face down on the dune several yards from the ahu platform near the beach. He showed us that the eye sockets were incomplete, indicating that this statue had been interrupted in transit. It wasn’t knocked down during the tribal wars; it was never erected. How sad to think that the ancient craftsmen had spent a year carefully carving the statue from the mountainside, and then weeks more, painstakingly moving it from the quarry to the sea, only to have it topple over, a few yards from its ahu. A parade of other unerected moai with unfinished eye sockets told the same tale.

Alvaro took us to another favorite family spot and suggested that we have our lunch there. It was a delightful tide pool with a shallow waterfall created by the waves. Taylor immediately took off climbing, and soon he and Hayley were in the water. Fortunately two of the other skaters told us to bring a lunch, because there was no place to buy food outside the town, and Alvaro failed to mention it to us. We lunched on delicious turkey and cheese sandwiches on rolls baked fresh that morning. Sandwiches always taste better at a picnic, especially after a day of exploring!

Meeting the moai

But finally it was time to see the real thing: we were about to visit the quarry where hundreds of moai still dot the mountain.

As we came around a curve, there it all was, breathtaking — the blue sky, the green grass, and the dark stone faces emerging from the ground. Alvaro pointed out the unfinished statues still in the side of the quarry, waiting all these years to be released. One is the largest known statue on the island, 70 feet tall, like an Egyptian soldier guarding the entrance to a royal pyramid. I was trembling with excitement as we drove up to the national park, where we would finally walk among the statues.

But yes — we were roped off. We had to stay on the path. This was a development I had anticipated. If I had come here 15 years ago, when I first visited Santiago, I would have been able to touch the statues and stand right next to them. Or stand right on them, as many people did back then. But I don’t mind. They need to be protected, and the paths have been strategically placed for effective photo opportunities, with the added benefit that no else is going to be in the pictures. Nice!

We enjoyed a leisurely hike around the statues, pausing to take photos and imagine the history. Alvaro knew that I had the most intense interest in the island, so he loved telling me about every “surprise” around the corner. He never rushed us. His theory is that the statues in the quarry were used as samples. Various craftsmen displayed their work, and local people would then select the style and size they wanted to use as the memorial for a family burial platform, rather like selecting a grave marker today. In fact, an archeologist recently discovered three statues with an artist’s signature, suggesting that each craftsman had a specific part of the quarry from which to work.

This is also the only place where full-bodied statues are found, although the bodies are buried waist deep in the earth (probably to keep them standing up straight). Archeologists have unearthed them to study them, but then they cover them back up to maintain their historic integrity. Consequently, the bodies are in pristine shape and their markings are clear, because they have never been exposed to the wind, sand, and rain erosion that punishes the rest of the statues.

As we left the park I took one last look at the enigmatic heads, so alike and yet with personalities all their own. Hayley and I especially liked the guy whose head was tilted at a rakish angle. I never felt rushed, yet I couldn’t get enough. I want more pictures! I want to go back.

We experienced a few gnarly moments in the mud from the previous days’ rains, but we finally made it to drier ground. And then we were driving right toward those 15 moai raised by the Japanese crane company, all different heights and personalities, with the bright blue sea behind them as a perfect contrast to their dark stone and the green field in front of them. Simply gorgeous. “I’m in heaven!” I blurted to everyone in the van. Alvaro let us out to explore and take pictures on our own. Behind the platform we found a collection of smaller statues, some with bodies and some just heads, almost like babies gathered in a circle. Why were they there? Like so much else on the island, that is a mystery.

Our final stop of the day was a beautiful sandy beach, the only one we saw on the island. Every other shore was protected by foreboding lava rock. This is where Thor Heyerdahl arrived in 1955, and where Alvaro’s grandfather supervised the raising of the first statue in modern times in 1956. Alvaro told us the sad story of the day the statue’s unveiling was celebrated. A group of school children came to the celebration, and the teacher asked Heyerdahl if he could take the students out on the boat. The boat capsized, trapping one girl underneath it, and trapping the teacher under a pile of panicked students, all clinging to him to keep from drowning. The girl and the teacher drowned. She was Alvaro’s 14-year-old aunt, his grandfather’s own daughter. The grandfather was so distraught that he left the island and did not return for over 20 years. Alvaro’s grandmother went with him, leaving Alvaro’s 16-year-old father to take care of his younger siblings. So sad! His grandfather felt responsible for the tragedy. He regretted restoring the statue.

On a happier note, five additional moai were discovered under the sand and are now restored to their platform. The sand protected them from erosion, and they are beautiful, with most of their markings (ears, belts, hands, back decorations) still intact and clearly visible. I took off my shoes and rolled up my pants to walk in the sand. Nearby stands that first statue Alvaro’s grandfather raised, looking like a giant eroded blob compared to these well-preserved statues that had been entombed in the sand for centuries.

Exploring the island off-road

Greatest idea Hayley had all weekend: let's rent scooters. Greatest contribution from Taylor: let's make it four-wheelers instead. What a perfect way to experience Rapa Nui! We could strap our backpacks to the front of the motorbikes, and the sturdy machines could bounce over the potholes with ease. We didn't have to lean to turn, which made it so much safer. And we could stop wherever and whenever we wanted. It was still a little drizzly and gray as we began the morning, but that was the end of our sketchy weather. The clouds blew away, the sun came out, and we had a glorious day of off-road exploring as we retraced our steps from the tour, but took our time to hike, swim, and simply soak in the gorgeous scenery

Most of Easter Island is uninhabited wilderness. In the mid-19th century, Peruvian slave traders kidnapped many of the islanders to work in the mines on the mainland, leaving their European diseases behind as an unfair exchange. As a result, by 1872 only 111 native Rapa Nuians remained. The island was controlled by European sheep ranchers, and led by self-proclaimed King Jean I, who married a local princess (Alvaro’s great-grandmother) to strengthen his authority. The native population was forced to live behind barbed-wire fences on the southeast corner of the island. The government policy of moving all the people to one end of the island, terrible though it was at the time, inadvertently protected the island’s pristine features.

Today, everyone lives in four little towns, located side by side near the airport. There are a few isolated farmhouses and one rustic but high-priced hotel — The Explorer, $1300 a night; David Letterman and his children were there the week before us. Outside of that, it is completely barren and primordial. Horses, cows, dogs, and chickens roam wild across the fields. Broken moai dot the coastline as they have for centuries. Even after the Rapa Nuians gained independence from the Europeans and became Chilean citizens, they remained congregated in the same area; the rest of the island is virtually undeveloped. Fearful of outsiders, they have limited land ownership to native Rapa Nuians, which has prevented commercial development and chain hotels.

The native population was forced to live behind barbed-wire fences on the southeast corner of the island. The government policy of moving all the people to one end of the island, terrible though it was at the time, inadvertently protected the island’s pristine features.

This makes Easter Island an ideal place for off-road exploring, and we took full advantage. Before long we were climbing lava formations and discovering new tide pools, watching the waves, and having a great time. At our first stop I suddenly remembered that we left our helmets and Taylor's backpack on the four-wheelers. But it was fine — unlike the other South American countries we've visited, where crime is rampant, Rapa Nui is safe and virtually crime-free.

We ate our lunch on a lava outcropping above a wild and windy coastline. The waves were so tall that a couple of times we had that rollercoaster sensation of impending disaster. We thought about what it would be like to see a tsunami coming, and almost ran to higher ground a couple of times, even though we were probably 25 feet above the water and at least 100 yards away from it. But it was such a beautiful sight, with the light aqua water in the waves, the white roiling foam, the deep blue ocean against the dark lava. It was so nice to relax and enjoy the view without worrying about time and tour guides.

We stopped near the blow hole to watch surfers in the distance being dropped into the waves by a jet ski. It would be deadly to surf all the way to the shore and get smashed against the rocks, but in the distance they can surf the waves and then drop into the water again behind the next wave. We rode past the ahu with the fallen statues near Alvaro's family cave, and the large abandoned moai, until we finally reached the tide pool. No one was there, so we stripped into our skivvies and swam in the pool until a huge wave flooded it and nearly dashed us against the rocks. Then we continued our ride. If there was a path, we followed it, and found gorgeous views as a result. At one point we ended up high in the hills near cows, cliffs, and a pile of bones that was once a horse. We could see the hoofs and even the hair on its legs — it must have been a fairly recent kill. We don't know how it died, but all the bones were piled in a circle. Some kind of ritualistic sacrifice? Or maybe it simply broke its leg and couldn't go on. We saw so many piles of animal bones on the island that "there's another bag of bones" became a running joke.

We were completely alone for most of the day, except when we stopped again at the 15 moai restored by the Japanese, where we took some fun photos of ourselves jumping in front of the statues and pretending to hold them up. I was happy to get another view of them, and I kept looking back as we left, thinking, "One last look. One last look."

Not a single person joined us. We explored on our own. Everything we saw was a delight.

Storytelling under the stars

After a late dinner we hopped back on our ATVs and headed for Puna Pau in the interior of the island, the place where the red topknots had been quarried. There would be no light pollution so far away from town, and we would be able to see the stars. I was at the back of our little caravan. Every once in a while I would look behind me, and it was pitch dark. I wasn't scared, but I was a little nervous, and I knew that I could work myself up into real fear if I let myself start imagining things. Taylor was also spooked, so when we stopped the bikes we both ended up turning them around, to be ready for a quick getaway . . .

Nevertheless, we put our blankets out on the grass and lay down to gaze at the stars. They were brilliantly bright, of many different sizes — you don’t see that in the places where most people live. And so densely packed! The Milky Way was fully visible, but of course the constellations were completely different from any we see in the northern hemisphere. I told some stories about constellations — the myths of Deer Hunter and White Corn Maiden, Orpheus and Eurydice, and others. We saw shooting stars, including one that was huge — like a dove flying across the sky. We were shivering with the cold, but we warmed up under our blankets. It was peaceful and beautiful, and we all had the sense of seeing something we would never see again.

It was late when we returned to the hotel, but we decided to get up early and explore just a little more before turning the bikes in at 9. So we settled our bill with Alvaro and told him it was worth the cold showers to be able to stay at his B and B. Chagrined by our report, he walked to the back of our cottage and changed the propane tank. Then we enjoyed our first hot showers of the week.

At 7:30 we were up, showered, and on our ATVs, heading north on the east side of town, to see what we had missed. Just outside of town we spied a spectacular set of moai, along with petroglyphs, "mana vai" where the early islanders created rock enclosures to protect their crops from the wind, and the remains of Rapa Nui’s ancient boat-shaped houses. I knew that thousands of people had seen these moai before me, but there was still something extra special about them. I had found them for myself, and no one was there but just we three. Horses came thundering across the field, chased by wild dogs, and one of the horses nearly lost its footing and almost fell into the sea. There was a playfulness in their chase, however; the dogs weren't really trying to catch the horses, and the animals seemed to be enjoying the morning as much as we were.

It was magical. I loved it, loved it, loved it. Although we could see another moai far in the distance, up the coast, we didn't know how to get there, and we were running out of time. So with one last backward look we headed back to town to turn in our mechanical steeds. Then we grabbed some towels and headed back to the cliffs, walking this time. The sun was warm; the wind had died down. Our last experience on the island was relaxing in the ocean’s crystal pool. Then three quick showers, three quick empanadas, and 3,000 pesos (for the taxi), and we were back at the airport, saying goodbye to this enticing island and its enigmatic folklore.

They walked

Why did ancient Polynesian craftsmen create these monolithic statues on this tiny dot in the ocean, but nowhere else? How did they transport the 80-ton sculptures from the quarries to the coastlines? What caused them to stop erecting them so suddenly that many of the statues lie along the paths, abandoned in their tracks? What virtually destroyed the island population?

Many archeologists, environmentalists, and social scientists have used Easter Island as an example of how human folly leads to self-destruction. They suggest that the islanders cut down the forests to transport giant statues to appease their gods. When the resulting deforestation destroyed the natural plant and animal life, they were unable to feed themselves. Hunger led to tribal warfare, and the natives basically killed themselves off, all because of their religion. Nasty humans. We ruin everything.

It was peaceful and beautiful, and we all had the sense of seeing something we would never see again.

But more recent archeologists have discovered a different story. As our friend Alvaro tells us, "It was the rats!" European ships brought rats along with their cargo, and those rats loved the taste of the palm seeds on the island. A close examination of ancient seed shells reveals the scratching of rats' teeth as they gnawed through the shells to get at the sweet pulp of the seeds. No seeds, no trees. Between the rats and germs the Europeans brought to the island, and their enslavement of the native population, which they took away from the island to work in the mines of Peru, it was the European outsiders, not the native people, who destroyed the ecosystem.

Moreover, a recent experiment by a team of archeologists (Terry Hunt, Carl Lipo, Sergio Rapu Haoa, and Patrick Kirch) has pretty much debunked the theory that the statues were moved on their backs along rolling platforms made from the trunks of trees. Local folklore always maintained that the statues "walked" from the quarry to the ahus, and local folklore usually contains a kernel of truth. (That's how Heinrich Schliemann discovered the city of Troy.) Noting that the fallen moai were fatter and had a different center of gravity from the completed moai standing on their final platforms, they came up with a theory that the islanders slung ropes around the eye sockets and shoulders and then used gravity and the statues’ own sloping shape to rock the objects forward, in much the same way that I have tipped a heavy bureau from side to side in order to rock it gently from one part of a room to another. PBS recently aired a documentary of their experiment using a life-sized, 80-ton replica. Watching it finally "walk" down the path was a magical moment for me. (The documentary, "Nova: Mystery of Easter Island," is available at Amazon.com.)

In essence, through modern technology, the statues had come to life. They could speak to us again, and in so doing, they could defend the islanders who had been maligned for centuries. Japanese crane companies and university archeologists lifted them out of the sand. Modern airliners and cruise ships bring a new kind of visitor today — not visitors who want to pillage and plunder, but people with a reverence for things ancient and a willingness to travel thousands of miles on a pilgrimage to consider the past.

Cultures everywhere create monuments and memorials to their dead. Often they turn to these memorials in times of trouble, seeking the help of their departed ancestors. This almost universal tendency indicates a profound belief, or at least a hope, that there is another existence after this one — that the spirits of the ancestors live on. Easter, with its focus on resurrection and new life, is a perfect time to reflect on the mysteries of Easter Island, and to resurrect the wonder and magic of youthful curiosity. I like to think of those Seven Explorers, facing the sea for century after century and patiently waiting for the sun to set at each year’s summer solstice, even as I wait for the sun to rise on Easter morning as a symbol of the Son who also rises.

History. Mythology. Culture. They reveal the dimensions of our humanity. We are drawn to explore what is different, but end up learning what we have in common with other civilizations.




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A Program that Any Drunk Can Understand

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Libertarianism enjoys the contributions of many pioneers, several of whom spring immediately to mind. There’s H.L. Mencken, to whom I recently paid homage in these pages. There’s Murray Rothbard and Ludwig von Mises, Rose Wilder Lane, Isabel Paterson, and, of course, Ayn Rand. There are others I’ve neglected to mention here, but of whom readers may remind me. And there are Bill W. and Doctor Bob.

At my mention of the last two, some may scratch their heads. They may search their anthologies of political works, trying to find some mention of these eminent persons. When they come up short, they may conclude that I am kidding. But though Bill W. and Doctor Bob are better known in Twelve-Step recovery circles than in libertarian ones, and though neither may ever have considered himself a libertarian, together they formulated a philosophy that, in many ways, bears a striking similarity to the political convictions we hold dear. They were the founders of Alcoholics Anonymous.

Of all political persuasions, libertarianism most nearly conforms to the principles of A.A. Both are clear and simple enough for any drunk to understand. Both adhere to guidelines everybody learned in kindergarten. And if most people hadn’t forgotten those guidelines by the time they graduated from high school, we would all live in a much better world.

We are not run by any elites who are presumed to know better than we do. Our leadership always emerges from the bottom up, and is guided not by airy theories but by practical experience.

How close is A.A. to libertarian principles? Strikingly close. We Twelve-Steppers believe in taking responsibility for ourselves. We believe, as we like to say, in “keeping our side of the street clean.” In seeking out solutions to our problems ourselves, instead of sitting around waiting for somebody else to do it for us.

Helping other people is also not something we’re encouraged to sit around and wait for somebody else to do. When we’re able, we’re supposed to pitch in and do it ourselves. No faraway potentate is seen as our ultimate benefactor. No potentate, that is, except our own, individually identified Higher Power — a Power that never takes a dime from us in taxes, yet provides far greater assistance than we’ve ever gotten from Washington D.C., for all the trillions we’ve sent it.

Just as in an economy based on liberty, an “invisible hand” can truly be said to govern the workings of Twelve-Step programs. Nobody needs to plan, organize, or dictate matters from the top, from the heights of any centralized organization. We are not run by any elites who are presumed to know better than we do. Our leadership always emerges from the bottom up, and is guided not by airy theories but by practical experience.

Busybodies and know-it-alls gain no traction in A.A. None has ever succeeded in taking charge. To outside eyes, this seems nothing short of miraculous. It may also seem miraculous that a ragtag assortment of freedom-loving citizens were ever able to govern themselves in a country without kings, emperors, or any sort of grand council to oversee operations down to the minutest detail.

In A.A., we hold each other individually accountable. And every individual counts. The dignity of each person’s choices is honored, whether for good or ill. In recovery, we come to appreciate that our lives have a value no one else can ever take away, and that — for the sake of our very survival — we must never throw away ourselves. Though I was well on my journey toward a libertarian perspective years before I became involved in A.A., my experience in the program had much to do with clinching my political conversion.

Over the past three-quarters of a century, millions of people’s lives have been saved by their adherence to the principles of Twelve-Step recovery. Those lives bear testimony to the fact that the principles work. If they work to save human lives, they might also help to save the larger human society.

When recovering drunks run across people who labor without the benefit of such help, those who are apparently clean and sober but who are whiny, self-absorbed, irresponsible, childish, over-dependent, nosy, meddlesome, or just plain impossible to get along with, we often remark that they “need a program.” We say this with a smile, but we are serious. We count ourselves fortunate that we have found a way of life that makes our individual lives worth living, and actually feel sorry for those who haven’t. More than ever before, today, Americans need a program. Be they drunk or sober, and regardless of whether they use recreational drugs, a huge number of them direly need to be Twelve-Stepped.

As a nation, many Americans are addicted to the hallucinogen of government aid. They grope their way through their existence under the delusion that, although they’re doing a lousy job of managing their own lives, they have the wisdom to manage everyone else’s. They may not believe that their Higher Power resides a bottle or a syringe, but they just as mistakenly believe that it resides in the state. This, as surely as alcoholism or drug addiction, is a disease that leads to disappointment, despair, and destruction. As we in A.A are also fond of saying, they “need a meeting.”

The next meeting of our local Libertarian Party, or of any similar group of liberty-loving individuals, would very nicely fit the bill.




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Confessions from China II

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I just had lunch at the local food court in Guangzhou, a city of 1.3 million people in southern China. The price of the regular meal was 25 Yuan. I did not want rice, so they politely returned 10 Yuan, despite the fact that I didn’t ask for it. My meal cost me about $2.25. This is my sixth visit to China over the past three years; each one has been for about a month. I have traveled to many cities. While I have not been to many rural places, I have travelled enough to have my own views on China.

My experience of the food vendor returning me 10 Yuan no longer surprises me. I cannot think of a time when I have been cheated in China. I speak no Chinese. When I am stuck at restaurants, I am often offered eager translation help by other guests. Success in business is evidently exerting a strong influence, making people civil, honest, and compassionate.

I indulge in haggling at local shops and manage to pay what a regular Chinese would. Were I not to haggle, I would leave the shopkeeper dissatisfied. Taxis seldom overcharge me. When a shop is open, the well-dressed shop-assistant comes to me to get my business. She smiles and greets me. If her shop isn’t open, she ignores me and sometimes waves me off, a bit rudely.

People in many parts of the world refuse to acknowledge the rapid progress of China, because they see it as a communist country. Libertarians and those with free-market inclinations are particularly prone to this. They don’t want to accept the idea that an officially communist country has achieved human progress at a combined scale and rate that is unprecedented. But ignoring something does not change the reality.

Although China is a dictatorship of the “Communist Party,” that does not make it economically communist. No, China is not a democracy. People have a habit of imagining “democracy” as synonymous with “freedom,” but these are totally separate concepts. “Democracy” is a form of government, and government is by definition anti-freedom. “Freedom” is a word that applies to what is allowed by the institutions and culture of a country.

Libertarians and those with free-market inclinations don’t want to accept the idea that an officially communist country has achieved human progress at a combined scale and rate that is unprecedented.

I actually find myself very free in China. You can drink openly in public (as you can in most of Asia). You can trade, and even scam people, right in front of the police, who are not trained to be busybodies. In many places cute girls approach you with scams, offering to take you to bars. They talk openly within hearing distance of the police. In major cities, there is a rampant market in fake diplomas or ID cards. At night, I often saw several business cards shoved under the door of my hotel room, offering the service of an evening rendezvous.

Chinese traders always seem to say, “Yes, I have what you want. Now, tell me: what do you want?”

There has been much talk about the X-ray machines that check your bags at Chinese subways and at the entrance to Tiananmen Square. In my experience, the authorities are never serious about checking your bags.

“But you can’t protest against the government in China.” There are hundreds of thousands of recorded protests every year in China. You ought to see the Chinese protesting. I have seen them hurling abuse at policemen, shouting and screaming, throwing their arms and legs around. Yes, they can’t make a democratic change in China. But in Canada, my vote — one among millions of other votes — wasn’t worth spare change. In my view, “democracy” is a farce at best. It has a strong tendency to degenerate into the dictatorship of the masses. Compared with that, Chinese protest is real. People who protest in Canada mostly lobby for government favors — they protest to steal from me. And people like me are always on the sidelines, refusing to make jackasses of themselves, worried about any inconvenience their protests might cause to others.

Every time I deal with a bureaucrat in China, I am offered the chance to participate in a quick electronic assessment of his performance: Was he courteous and efficient? Where else in the world are you asked to evaluate a public servant? When I don’t care to participate in the survey, I often see the hand of the bureaucrat himself coming out of the window to do the assessment on my behalf — ironic proof that the surveys have real value.

Having been in Guangzhou for a week, I have seen virtually no foreign tourists. Yet downtown Guangzhou is among the most modern cities I know. Its skyline competes with the very best in Hong Kong, New York, and Singapore. Yet a closer inspection of those modern buildings shows that a lot of them are partially or fully empty. And the quality of buildings falls off rapidly once you are outside the downtown area. BMWs and Audis parked outside the grim apartment buildings in the outskirts show how important the public face is for many Chinese. The hazy air, the expensive shops, where rich people likely won’t shop unless they overpay, and the massive Pearl River, which for all practical purposes is the main sewage and industrial-waste artery, all remind me that I am in China.

Chinese women have probably shed their clothes faster than any other women in history, so much so that during my initial visits I thought more than once of asking them if they had forgotten something. Yet ugly buildings are often hidden behind massive posters or some other kind of façade. Packaging is more important than substance in China. The well-dressed people on the streets often share a room with several others — no air-conditioning, and the bathing facility in an adjoining building, with hot water carefully rationed.

The ultra-modern subway systems and extremely modern buildings calibrate people’s thinking, leading them to assess China as if it were a fully modern economy. Alas, China is still a developing economy, which can best be judged by comparison with where it was (a mere) two decades ago.

There is much talk about increasing nationalism in China, yet it is hard to believe that a society that had grown as fast as China would not at the same time grow nationalistic. A local acquaintance tells me that a mere 15 years back there were cows roaming the streets of what is now the modern city of Guangzhou. You can see how Guangzhou changed over the last few decades using the time-function on Google Earth.

This is a society that thinks in herds, and I have had neither the occasion nor the courage to discuss these issues in a group.

Was there a lot of pain involved in these sweeping changes in the city? Yes. Of course. The property of poor people was confiscated for little or no compensation. Such people increasingly protest, sometimes with violence against public officials. And property confiscations can be worse in democratic countries, where short-term politicians have incentives to cater to their corrupt connections, fund-providers, and lobbies.

The Chinese do have a visceral anti-Japanese sentiment. They are heavily indoctrinated, through movies and the educational system, to hate Japan. But when I challenge people about their views, I have never seen an individual refuse to engage in a rational discussion. I say “individual,” because this is a society that thinks in herds, and I have had neither the occasion nor the courage to discuss these issues in a group.

The political systems of China, the Koreas, and Japan have been heavily influenced by Confucian culture. In these hierarchical societies, creative thinking doesn’t have much place. Their culture and social systems make people shining cogs in a big machine, the better for them to work diligently and unworryingly in their boring jobs and studies. Even in Vancouver, the library is packed with Chinese students, cramming away from books. Libraries in China are similar.

But one must take a walk to the multi-story bookstores in China. They have scores of self-improvement books, proving that Chinese people increasingly read outside assigned academic works. You see covers showing the faces of Warren Buffett, Steve Jobs, Dale Carnegie, and Stephen Covey. In a country where illegal copying is believed to be rampant, there must still be considerable profit from legally marketed translations. Could the Chinese be becoming more creative? I have no doubt they are. Even if you look through the lenses of “communism” (with all kinds of fancy connotations) that you might wear in China, you cannot ignore the fact that there are many modern, creative solutions to be found in predominantly Confucian countries.

People are forever comparing China with India. Thirty years ago, when China had a per capita GDP that was lower than India’s, this would have made sense. It no longer does. Today, an average Chinese is three times richer than an average Indian. And strangely, I find India a lot more expensive than China, and a lot less free. India is stagnating. China continues to grow. China wants to make money.

But am I not over-romanticising China? I witnessed an old lady, who was selling fruit at a corner in the small city of Lijiang, being hit hard on her stomach by Chengguan, government goons — a vivid reminder that all is not well. It is very hard to trust the quality of food in China. I love the 30 cent, nicely-cut pineapples, but I do ask myself if they are unnaturally sweetened. Cheap massages, usually for less than $10, are great for me. But what about the people who render those services? What about all the people who live in extremely congested spaces? What about all the people who work in extraordinarily exploitative situations under “greedy” businessmen? What about the sweatshops? What about the ruthless abortion of the second child?

Governments, irrespective of whether they are democracies or single-party dictatorships, are institutions of heartlessness, inhumanity, and freedom from accountability. State and nationhood are unnatural concepts, designed by crooks and sociopaths to control the sheeple. The smaller the state, the fewer the regulations, and the better the society. I am not in a situation to compare China with truly stateless societies, because today’s world offers no examples. But China has very little regulatory control — the biggest reason behind its low costs. And, yes, I do feel for small children living and working under tough situations, or my masseurs who work for a pittance. But I gladly use their services, for the choice they have is not between a good job and a bad job. If they had that option they would have chosen the good job. Their choice is between a bad job and hunger. Trading with them, I get my massage and they get food. China understands this concept well. And that is the only way to move up economically.

China has moved up. Chinese salaries are rising much faster than the nation’s growth rate or inflation rate, meaning that the benefits of continued growth are accruing increasingly to the workers. Workers are fighting for better conditions. People are increasingly resisting work in factories where other people have been used like automatons. In fact, the increasing worry is that as China becomes a more expensive place to operate, some manufacturing is moving back to the West. A lot of clothing factories have already moved to Vietnam and Bangladesh. This is how human conditions improve. Not by increasing demand, in the way that Keynesian Western governments think things happen, but by working hard, by slogging along and creating the supply first. Sweatshops then go away naturally.

Governments, irrespective of whether they are democracies or single-party dictatorships, are institutions of heartlessness, inhumanity, and freedom from accountability.

My guess is that manufacturing that is moving back to the US is not necessarily doing that for economic reasons but to keep Obama happy and possibly to access earmarked money. It would be erroneous to think that China had lost its competitive advantages and that the short-term, democratic Western world had learned anything, for that world continues to do more of what created its current problems. I continue to be bullish about the future in China.

Except in Beijing and Shanghai, I usually pay $10 for a hostel bed or $30 for a three-star hotel. My fabulous hotel in Guangzhou has a price tag of $30, but it does offer some kind of, I think very strange, cup of coffee for $30. Only a nouveau riche Chinese or someone with a company account will pay for this. I of course don’t abuse the latter. A full meal costs $10 or less. The subway, one of the best I have seen anywhere, costs between 50 cents and 75 cents. Unless I fall for the temptation to waste money, I can live a luxurious life here for less than $50 a day.

But China is not only a place for cheap goods. It is a treasure trove for anyone seeking an education in economics. Just be prepared to accept a few Chinese idiosyncrasies. And don’t let the “communist” tag on China stop you from going there.




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What Difference Did Benghazi Make?

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Remember the Benghazi attack, the one against our consulate in Libya, where terrorists murdered our ambassador and three other Americans? Vaguely? It was the debacle that we were told was caused by a silly anti-Islamic video — and led to a series of tedious hearings revealing almost nothing about the trans-attack activities of President Obama and Secretary of State Clinton. Judging by media coverage, all that most people will remember of the hearings was the "What difference, at this point, does it make?” remark by Mrs. Clinton, in her January testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

It was Clinton's indignant rejection of a line of inquiry into the State Department's initial insistence that the attack was a spontaneous response to the silly video. But it represented a political victory for Democrats. Theatric, petulant, at times tearful, always evasive, Mrs. Clinton rebuked her inquisitors while defending her role, and that of President Obama, in the handling of the attack. She deftly accepted responsibility, but not a whit of blame; and shed not a particle of light on anything that she or Mr. Obama might have done to save lives on the night of the attack. Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton had escaped Benghazi, now a fading tempest in a politicized Republican teapot.

Indeed, what difference did it make? Mr. Obama was reelected in November. Time, and a fawning media, have dissolved public interest in the Benghazi matter. And Mrs. Clinton's testimony was, in no small part, a valedictory for her State Department stint. She departs as one of the country's most popular political figures, and a likely candidate for president in 2016. During her 60 Minutes appearance with Obama, this popularity led her to put what she may have thought would be the final nail in the Benghazi coffin, saying of her critics, "They just will not live in an evidence-based world."

But, only a week later, on February 7, public memory was refreshed with the "evidence-based" testimony (before the Senate Armed Services Committee) of Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Martin Dempsey. We would learn that their participation during the eight-hour tragedy was timid and parochial, that of Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton negligent and ignoble; their escape from Benghazi was desertion.

At 5:00 pm on the afternoon of September 11, 2012, Leon Panetta and General Dempsey met with President Obama for a routine 30-minute weekly session. But on this day, Panetta and Dempsey brought news of the Benghazi attack: it had begun about 90 minutes earlier, the lives of more than 30 US citizens were at stake, and the whereabouts of Ambassador Stevens was unknown. They spent a whopping 20 minutes with Obama discussing the situation at the American embassy in Cairo and the diplomatic mission in Benghazi.

After thus blaming the State Department, Dempsey added, "I'm not blaming the State Department."

It was at this brief meeting that Obama ordered Panetta and Dempsey to "do whatever we need to do to make sure they’re safe." Said Panetta, “He just left that up to us.” During the entire night, this was the only time Obama would communicate with Panetta and Dempsey. When Senator Lindsey Graham asked Panetta, "Did the president show any curiosity?", we found that Obama never called back to ask "are we helping these people?"

Sometime after the meeting, Obama placed a political call to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, to quell a perceived controversy over Obama's refusal to meet with Netanyahu two weeks later at the UN General Assembly. But he never called Panetta and Dempsey to make sure that Ambassador Stevens and associates in Libya — Sean Smith, Tyrone Woods, Glen Doherty, and dozens of others — were OK. No situation room, no gutsy decisions; the 30-minute, 5 o'clock meeting and the one hour Netanyahu phone call are all we know of Obama's activities that evening. Panetta also testified that he did not communicate with a single person at the White House that night.

Nor did Clinton communicate with Panetta and Dempsey. Senator Ted Cruz asked them, "In between 9:42 p.m., Benghazi time, when the first attacks started, and 5:15 am, when Mr. Doherty and Mr. Woods lost their lives, what conversations did either of you have with Secretary Clinton?" The answer was that they had none.

Who would want to be in the shoes of Panetta and Dempsey? According to their testimony, they knew right away that the Benghazi attack was the work of terrorists. Yet, there they were, alone at the helm, ordered to keep Americans safe from what their commander-in-chief thought was an angry mob of protestors — a commander-in-chief who then left for the night.

The principal obstacle they faced was the time it would take for a military response. As Panetta testified, aircraft such as AC-130 gunships would have taken "at least nine to 12 hours if not more to deploy." Dempsey testified that a “boots on the ground” presence in Benghazi would have taken 13 to 15 hours. Our forces were unready. When Senator John McCain asked why, Dempsey said that General Ham, the commander of AFRICOM, had made him aware of Ambassador Stevens's repeated warnings, "but we never received a request for support from the State Department." After thus blaming the State Department, Dempsey added, "I'm not blaming the State Department."

Senator Graham asked, "Did anybody leave any base anywhere to go to the aid of the people under attack in Benghazi, Libya, before the attack ended?" "No," Panetta responded, "because the attack ended before they could get off the ground." His thinking might have been that there was no point in sending military assets on a nine-hour trip to save the lives of four people who would be dead an hour before it arrived. But at the time Panetta and Dempsey were considering response options, there were over 30 lives at risk and no one knew the attack would end in eight hours. The assault against the consulate may have ended before help could get off the ground, but for all they knew, the assault on the CIA annex could have lasted much longer.

In this situation, how could you not send support? Send it without hesitation — right after the 5 o'clock meeting would have been good. Send it all — so what if it might arrive late. Ruling out political risk, what is the downside? And what if the attack lasted, say, 18 hours? Gunships could be there in nine, and “boots on the ground” in fifteen.

Panetta testified, "Despite the uncertainty at the time, however, the Department of Defense and the rest of the United States government spared no effort to save American lives." But evidently, other than the dispatch of an unarmed drone and a six-man, Tripoli-based rescue team, all effort was in fact spared.

Nothing was done to enlist the aid of the Libyan government. In a letter to President Obama, Senator Graham asked whether he had ever called a Libyan official on September 11 to expedite the deployment of US support to Libya. According to Graham, “And he said after a two-page letter from his lawyer, no." Expedited deployment would have prevented the 90-minute delay experienced by the FAST team of Marines out of Spain, a delay caused by State Department officials who required the Marines to deplane and change out of their uniforms. It could have prevented the Tripoli team from being held up at the Benghazi Airport for three and a half hours.

In this situation, how could you not send support? Send it all, and send it without hesitation — so what if it might arrive late?

The responsible officials didn't even send the air support that was promised to be above Benghazi when the rescue team arrived. Despite Dempsey’s claims that US forces were “in motion” from the beginning, he admitted that none ever attempted to reach Benghazi; no one ever ordered them to go there. Obama, Clinton, Panetta, and Dempsey could not say, with honor, that they tried anything that had a chance of helping.

We do not know what Obama and Clinton did the tragic evening of September 11, 2012. They may have gone to sleep. Panetta and Dempsey did not sleep. Perhaps the harrowing night of monitoring an attack, an attack that could not end soon enough, kept them awake. For they knew that their timidity might result in the deaths of more than 30 people, if the attack continued. And though only four would die, Panetta and Dempsey would live with their answer to the question, "Did anybody leave any base anywhere to go to the aid of the people under attack in Benghazi, Libya, before the attack ended?" — even if Senator Graham had never asked that question.

Then there was the anxiety of waiting to see whether the president would walk in. Would he be engaged and concerned, demanding a status report on what Panetta and Dempsey were doing "to make sure they’re safe"? Or would Mrs. Clinton barge in, at a point when it would have made a difference? Although the president had left it up to them, Panetta and Dempsey had not implemented a single effective military option; they had to worry that they would not be seen doing "whatever we need to do" to help. But Obama and Clinton didn't even care to call and check — not a single phone call throughout the entire, grueling attack. By the end of that dreadful night, Panetta and Dempsey might have asked, "What difference, at this point, does it make” that neither Barack Obama nor Hillary Clinton ever showed up.




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North Korea: A Mirror unto Myself

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I went to North Korea.

Why?

I travel to self-reflect, to challenge my own conditioning, and to question my irrational beliefs and patterns. The more extreme my new surroundings, the more challenges my psyche gets. Laughing at others and considering them backward might be a self-satisfying reason to go abroad, but mostly futile.

Do I accept paying half of what I earn in taxes, making myself a slave for half my life and a bit more, filling up forms and chasing bureaucrats, and then make fun of others who slave under a different pretext?

Do I find women wearing veils in Islamic cultures deplorable but not girls who wear virtually nothing while lining up outside discos in the frigid night of Canada?

At the death of Princess Diana, whom I had always considered rather stupid, hundreds of thousands of people in England, a relatively sophisticated society, went into hysteria. These were exactly the same people who until a day before had lived for the next issue of the tabloids so they could practice voyeurism on the intimate details of Diana’s life. Of course there was another subgroup — of do-gooders — that was more interested in watching Diana photographed with starving African kids, while she was flying around in the most luxurious jets. Unable to see the contradictions, that subgroup firmly believed she was doing a service to society.

When Prince William and Kate Middleton visited Canada, thousands of girls wanted to touch them. When Kim Jong Il died, virtually everyone in North Korea mourned.

My question is why North Koreans should be made fun of if they grieve over the death of someone they consider their savior? The shallow thoughts of starving people are perhaps more understandable than those of people who live in comfort.

Apart from always trying to provide myself tools for understanding my own thinking as rationally as possible, I went to North Korea assuming that this last pure Communist country was not going to last for long, so I should see it while I could. And I was in for a treat, an educational one.

By keeping its troops south of border, America has given rationalizations for the Kims’ regime.

Contrary to popular belief, it is not difficult to visit North Korea. Also, I had enough to eat and felt very safe. There were spies all around, but I never felt threatened. They were normal human beings playing out their indoctrinations. Despite my initial, strong worries, the fact is that in virtually any dictatorship, you are safer than you would be elsewhere.

North Korea is developing missile and nuclear technology. I am not sure why this should merit moral condemnation, at least by the United States. I recall that not too long back, the US promised Gaddafi that he would not be attacked if he gave up biological and nuclear weapons. The promise was forgotten the moment the risk of those weapons went away.

I find it remarkable that North Koreans have partly developed such high technologies. North Korea has a population of only 24 million people; it occupies a hilly part of its peninsula, making agriculture difficult. Under sanctions it has very limited trade with outsiders, something that seriously harms and constricts its economy. And it is forced to spend an absolute fortune to defend its border. The military expenditures of its enemies at that border may be higher than the GDP of North Korea (so far as it is possible to estimate that).

I was told that I would meet very heavy-handed soldiers in North Korea. In contrast, I found it easy to have a laugh with them. And even at the DMZ, they allowed quite a bit freedom of movement. I had my arms on the soldiers when photographing with them. At the least they are just normal human beings.

It was a week later, when I went to exactly the same part of the DMZ, from the South Korean side, that I faced heavy-handedness. American soldiers dictated our moves in minute detail; we were asked not to smile at the North Korean security, because that might be taken as a hostile signal. The drama Americans create at the DMZ is their way of instilling fear in people and perhaps their way of legitimizing their presence in South Korea. By keeping its troops south of border, America has given rationalizations for the Kims’ regime.

Ironically, the room you visit at the DMZ when coming from the north is exactly the same one you visit when coming from the south; it is just that the control of that room keeps changing between the two countries. Of course despite their denials, both sides talk with each other to orchestrate events at the DMZ. The televised posturing that they do at DMZ — with alert army men — is only a show, for there is only one side present at any point of time, all based on negotiations. In the end, I could not shake off the feeling that it is not the North and the South that are enemies; it is as if the two governments and their allies ganged up together to keep fear and hostility between the two forcibly separated societies.

North Korea is a giant theater, where the actors have no recollection of the fact that they are acting.

People keep talking about the huge size of the North Korean army. In truth, a lot of work that would be classified as civilian jobs is done by the army; for example, all construction and infrastructure work is army work. You could easily halve the size of the North Korean army to compare like to like.

So do I think North Korea is a great place? Actually, it is by far the worst country I have ever visited. Its personality cult is water-tight. Its government has perfected tyranny. North Koreans have virtually no access to outside information. Even the North Korean air hostesses on their planes bound for Beijing are not allowed to leave their planes when they land there.

For a tourist, it is not possible to travel in North Korea independently. You must be escorted by two “guides” provided by the state-run travel agency. I joined a tour group from Beijing. This was almost a year ago, in April 2012, when Kim Il Sung’s centenary celebrations were being held. Wherever we went, spies followed us. We had no freedom of movement.We could not even leave our hotel unaccompanied. In fact, whatever we did was closely monitored.

Not allowed into local shops, we had to use euros or US dollars at foreigners-only tourist shops at highly elevated prices, making it impossible for any local to convert his currency into dollars and to put it to any good use. Locals not only cannot go to another city without a permit but they usually cannot even move within their cities freely. The army is everywhere and it keeps checking ID cards.

Army units are not allowed to travel much — they don't have much means of transportation anyway, making any coup almost impossible. You often see army men walking from one city to another. The nice looking vehicles that you see on TV seem mostly for propaganda purposes. The army trucks I usually saw were the broken-down old vehicles on the side of the roads.

There is virtually no concept of private property. Everyone works for the government, in a position decided by the government. Every hospital is owned by the government. Every house is owned by the government. People can own cars, but you don't see vehicles. Sometimes you can go a kilometer within the capital and not see a car.

Most North Koreans have no money left to save at the end of the month. They have no incentive to save anyway, as they can keep their savings only at the bank — remember there is no other means of investment possible — where it can be devalued at any whim of the government. Some people might save in gold, illegally, but imagine the repercussions in a country where 50% of the people have at one point or another denounced their family or friends. You can imagine what moral effect the lack of possibility to save would have on you.

Many houses have pots of beautiful flowers, particularly of the two kinds named after the Kims. They look very bright and nice. On closer inspection I realized that a lot of them are plastic.

We were taken to a laboratory filled with colorful chemicals, but all evidence showed that they were never used. It was the same with the big computer room. The keyboards had never been used.

A year or so back, all the universities were closed. Students were asked to report for road work. You can see families — parents and kids — mending roads and electricity poles outside their houses. They are asked to do this, under threat. But really they just accept it as normal life. They don’t seem to know of any other way.

All fun activities have a strong dose of patriotism and Kim-ism in them. There are statues of Kim Il Sung all over the country, statues that must be kept sparkling clean at all times. Early in the freezing morning, I could see tens of thousands of people everywhere descending, on foot or on their bikes, to the statues of Kim Il Sung to pay their respects. You might encounter a group of women singing praises of Kim Il Sung in front of a spellbound audience of locals, while I stood shivering. If one is a local, one must either sing or join the audience or go to the gulag. The system offers none of these people the option of distinguishing between enjoying what they are doing or doing it as a compulsive action. Their thinking and emotions are certainly very numbed, making North Korea a giant theater, where the actors have no recollection of the fact that they are acting.

A North Korean citizen can exist only by complete subversion of his humanity in the interest of the state.

Locals are mostly kept out of the way of tourists. But sometimes actors and actresses appear to create a fake environment for outsiders. You might see a group of locals playing “tourist” at the DMZ, when you know you did not see any tourist bus apart from yours. At the store, you might see a couple of women in traditional clothes browsing the books — all of them “written” by the Kims — and when you turned back after leaving you would see them switching off the lights. At the birthplace of Kim Il Sung, everything is new and fake. The furniture, the cutlery, the walls and the thatched roof cannot be more than a few years old. But perhaps everything touched by Kim Il Sung defies aging.

North Korea is a true 1984, and may even have exceeded it. Piped revolutionary music from loudspeakers installed all over the city is virtually compulsory for everyone. You wake up with it. The same music runs on the TV and, it seems, the locals must switch it on as soon as they wake up. The only vehicles that look in decent shape are propaganda vehicles, with loudspeakers on top of them. A citizen can exist only by complete subversion of his humanity in the interest of the state. He must from his birth learn thought control, or life would be unbearable and a continuous reminder of humiliation.

I have been to Myanmar (in 1996 at the height of its military dictatorship), Laos (where I traveled with early-teen insurgents), the Democratic Republic of Congo, Ethiopia, Belarus, and so on. But none has the kind of perfect tyranny and lack of personal freedom that North Korea has established.

I feel sorry for North Koreans. I don't travel to feel better than other people. I do it to understand human nature, mostly mine. And it is sad that in North Korea virtually everyone has been made a puppet and a parrot. It is a totalitarian state on top of cultural Confucianism. The elites have structured it so well that I can see no way for any revolution to happen. And people's minds have been so indoctrinated and their development so constrained that they would feel hugely insecure about not having a firm leader. But that is exactly the path the West is increasingly on now, isn't it? The irony is that Western people laugh at North Korea but cannot see themselves in the mirror.




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Rational vs. Irrational in the Gun Debate

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A month after the mass murder at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, President Obama launched his campaign to reverse the supposed increase in mass gun violence. With families of the victims in the audience, he ladled out a thick emotional stew of divisive rhetoric and straw man arguments. The empathetic Obama exuded sadness, anguish, frustration, contempt — but no sense of shame about his exploitation of the four prepubescent gun-control advocates who shared his stage. They were four among the reputedly numerous children who wrote touching pleas to the president.

A morsel from one read, "I am writing you to ask you to STOP gun violence. I am very sad about the children who lost their lives in Conn." Asnippet from another, read pensively by Mr. Obama, as if it were the deepest passage of Platonic philosophy, queried, "Can we stop using guns?" To the instruction "try very hard to make guns not allowed," the president promised he would.

That the sentiments of children could have such a provocative effect on politicians should inspire other budding activists. Can we look forward to national policies sanctioned exclusively by heartfelt gems from the children of global warmers and environmentalists? Think of the legislative outpouring as Obama passionately recites, "Please Mr. President, heal the planet"; "I am very sad about the children without Chevy Volts"; "Try very hard to make fossil fuels not allowed." Perhaps a juvenile letter-writing campaign lamenting the Benghazi and Fast and Furious fiascos would get to the bottom of them. Such a tactic could backfire, though. What if children from groups that are out of political favor engaged in similar campaigns: "I am writing you to ask you to STOP mommy from aborting my brothers and sisters." Would the president be forced to take action on that front?

The number of mass shootings is extremely small and stable, averaging only 20 instances and about 100 deaths annually for the past three decades.

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), naturally one of the first organizations affected by Obama's diminutive pawns, swiftly voiced its support, saying, “The Academy agrees with the President that to prevent future incidence like the shooting in Newtown there must be stronger gun laws, comprehensive access to mental health care, and no restrictions on federal gun violence research and prevention efforts. . . . Pediatricians stand ready to assist." The AAP was heartened by the prospect of reducing gun violence, and by the prospect of receiving scads of that research money. “No restrictions!” Obama's effusive pleas will beckon many others to stand ready with the AAP — at the government trough.

But, as the funding flows to assuage Obama's mass gun violence crisis, legitimate researchers will readily discover that, well, there is no crisis. The number of mass shootings (those that involve four or more deaths, including that of the gunman) is extremely small and stable, averaging only 20 instances (about 100 deaths) annually for the past three decades. By comparison, there are approximately 30,000 firearm related deaths per year. About two thirds of these are suicides; one third (11,000) are homicides. About 9,000 homicides are committed with handguns. Only about 48 deaths per year are attributed to “assault weapons”; this number includes accidental shootings and homicides that are not mass murders. To me, hammers and cudgels, which kill over twelve times as many people (618 mercilessly pummeled and battered to death in 2011 alone) are much more troubling than assault weapons.

According to crime experts, mass murderers are impossible to stop. In an article called “Top 10 myths about mass shootings, “James Alan Fox points out that "mass murderers typically plan their assaults for days, weeks, or months. They are deliberate in preparing their missions and determined to follow through, no matter what impediments are placed in their path." The vast majority (96.5%) are male. Most have neither a criminal record nor a history of psychiatric hospitalization. In the absence of that, they would not be disqualified from purchasing weapons legally — not that disqualification would preclude the acquisition of weapons by alternative means.

Furthermore, the handgun, not the assault rifle, is the weapon of choice. And, since mass murderers usually kill themselves (or have police do the honors), little is known beyond a few common telltale signs, such as: they have few friends, high self-esteem, and a tendency to blame others for their misfortunes. No wonder President Obama is averse to profiling.

As a first step in dissolving his imagined crisis, the president vilified his imagined opponent: a coalition of evil pundits, politicians, and special interest groups (the NRA and other anti-children organizations) that seek only to "gin up fear or higher ratings or revenue for themselves." Relying exclusively on emotion (that wonderful evolutionary class of traits that allow humans to take immediate action without thinking), Obama resorted to the irresistible, and what progressives believe to be unassailable, "if it saves one life" argument. Intellectually lazy, shameless in his exploitation of dead children, he beseeched, “If there is even one thing we can do to reduce this violence, if there’s even one life that can be saved, then we’ve got an obligation to try.”

One of the things that could be done is the prosecution of dangerous people (convicted felons and other prohibited persons) who attempt to purchase guns. To his mournful audience, the president said that if we "keep guns out of the hands of dangerous people, there would be fewer atrocities like the one in Connecticut." He should call Eric Holder. In 2009, the latest year for which statistics are available, only 77 of 71,000 such cases (0.1%) were prosecuted.

The abysmal enforcement of existing gun laws is the real, and much larger, “crisis.” In the face of this, proposing a package of 23 new laws is moronic. And, as lawmakers scramble to our rescue, the most popular nostrum under consideration, the "Universal Background Check," may be the most moronic of all.

Calling it a legislative "sweet spot," Senator Chuck Schumer tells us that it "is the best chance of getting something done." The problem is that criminals are smarter than Schumer. They (drug dealers, gang members, convicted felons, terrorists, etc.) won't subject themselves to enhanced checks, even at gun shows. Anticipating disqualification, they will simply obtain their guns elsewhere and, no doubt to the surprise of Obama and Schumer et alia, probably by illegal means — and at lower prices, when they simply steal the guns from people who purchased them legally. Why not?

Meanwhile, law-abiding citizens, who presumably would pass the enhanced check, will experience enhanced delays and fees, and the scorn of a national gun tracking registry. Gun control proponents mock Second Amendment supporters as paranoid about the use of such a database to facilitate an ultimate gun confiscation. But precedents for confiscation (Canada, Great Britain, Australia, California, and New York City) make their fears seem less irrational. Owners of so-called assault weapons are similarly mocked, as crazed and, apparently, clumsy killers using AR-15's with 100-round drums to mow down herds of deer. Banning such weapons, it is said, will not reduce hunters' rights, but will reduce mass murders — apparently, in direct proportion to the number of mass murderers who, in their lengthy, deliberate preparation, wouldn't think to bring along extra handguns and ammo clips to complete their missions.

Without once mentioning the glaring, abysmal failure of our immense law enforcement system to enforce 9,000 existing federal gun laws, President Obama proposed 23 more.

Senator Dianne Feinstein, leader of the assault weapon ban movement, indignantly asserts, "These weapons are not for hunting deer — they're for hunting people." And there is little doubt that looters and other criminals will have such weapons, since such people show up in the aftermath of riots, hurricanes, and other disasters, long before the government gets there. Sen. Feinstein's indignation notwithstanding, there will be little support among thinking people for an assault-weapon ban that forces gun owners to greet them with seven-shot handguns and deer rifles — judging, at least, by the current demand for assault rifles and high-capacity ammunition magazines, which has caused almost every gun shop and distributor in the country to be sold out.

Any serious attempt to reduce gun violence must focus on the 11,000 firearm related homicides committed each year, or at least the proportion of them committed by violent criminals. Exploiting children to drum up hysteria over mass murderers who kill 100 people annually is not serious. Nor is ridiculing “assault weapon” owners as ignorant and morally deficient individuals whose adherence to the Second Amendment threatens the safety of our children. As heinous as mass murders are, and whether assault weapons are involved or not, there is almost nothing that can be done to stop dedicated mass murderers. They are America's suicide bombers.

Unfortunately, rational policies are now blurred by the tears of emotion, tears that are being shamelessly used to advance an agenda that is a moral and political charade. In 2008, President-elect Obama shed no tears when 512 people were murdered in Chicago — his hometown where, as a community organizer, he supposedly worked closely with the very people being slaughtered. In 2012, President Obama remained tearless, when 516 were killed and Chicago ended the year as America's murder capital. Yet Mr. Obama brought himself to shed a tear for the 26 killed by an assault weapon in Newton, Connecticut. Then, pandering to fears he helped create, he immediately began a relentless attack on assault weapons, gun owners, the NRA, and politicians (that is, politicians who have the misfortune to disagree with him). He implored us to ask congressional leaders "why an ‘A’ grade from the gun lobby is more important than keeping kids safe in a first grade classroom.” And without once mentioning the glaring, abysmal failure of our immense law enforcement system to enforce 9,000 existing federal gun laws, he proposed 23 more.

If more gun laws would reduce gun violence, then cities like Chicago would be safe. Obama, Schumer, Feinstein, and their many surrogates and supporters could announce, with pious tears of joy, "We saved the children." But Chicago, which has the toughest gun laws (in effect, all guns, even handguns, are banned), is among the least safe. Its citizens, restricted by gun laws, are prey to its criminals, unrestricted by law enforcement.

Outrage over “gun violence” should be directed at the law enforcement community, which blatantly shirks its duty. Conscientious and resolute enforcement of existing gun laws against violent criminals would significantly shrink the 11,000 annual firearms-related homicides.Instead, we must endure incessant outrage over assault weapons and mass murder (100 victims annually, some children, some killed with assault weapons).

This is feigned outrage. It is the wagging tail of an enormous untamed dog. It is immoral. And who but morons would think that 9,023 laws will work, when 9,000 didn't.




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