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.

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




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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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Fatal Mistakes

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America was founded on the idea of individual liberty — that free men are rational individuals whose interests are vastly more harmonious than antagonistic. As such, it was the first moral society. All previous systems of social order were based on coercive forces that subordinated individuals to the demands of society — demands defined by a favored, ruling class. In America, society existed to support the orderly and voluntary pursuits of free individuals. And, in these pursuits, individuals enjoyed the fruits of their own labor, earned through free trade in a free market. How could a fledgling nation of disparate individuals — motivated by self-interest, defiant of authority, and governed by personal morality and the laws of capitalism — prosper?

To make matters worse, many of the individuals to whom this extraordinary task of self-government had been entrusted were the dregs of European society.It was Europe's poor and uneducated who ventured forth to America, undaunted souls who came to create their own employment. Those from the upper classes, unwilling to abandon their jobs as superior intellects, stayed home. As P.J. O'Rourke once remarked, "The Mayflower was full of C students."

In his famous essay, “What Is An American” (Letter III in Letters from an American Farmer, 1781), J. Hector St. John Crevecoeur wrote of this unruly lot,

Alas, two thirds of them had no country. Can a wretch who wanders about, who works and starves, whose life is a continual scene of sore affliction or pinching penury; can that man call England or any other kingdom his country? A country that had no bread for him, whose fields procured him no harvest, who met with nothing but the frowns of the rich, the severity of the laws, with jails and punishments; who owned not a single foot of the extensive surface of this planet?

Arriving in America, these people were "united by the silken bands of mild government, all respecting the laws, without dreading their power, because they are equitable. We are all animated with the spirit of an industry which is unfettered and unrestrained, because each person works for himself." Crevecoeur elaborated that for each American, "the rewards of his industry follow with equal steps the progress of his labour; his labour is founded on the basis of nature, self-interest; can it want a stronger allurement?"

It was Europe's poor and uneducated who ventured forth to America, undaunted souls who came to create their own employment.

The rest was history — in two parts. Part One extended from the time of Crevecoeur through the "Roaring Twenties”: a period of unprecedented prosperity created by the visions, labor, inventions, innovations, scientific discoveries, and technological advances of free individuals persevering through the tribulations of free markets, largely unassisted by government. Part Two was the period since: a period of continued, but more limited and increasingly precarious prosperity, a prosperity constrained by the authoritarian state that emerged during the meddlesome FDR years toextricate us from the throes of the Great Depression — by dismantling the social, economic, and political apparatus underlying almost everything that succeeded in Part One.

The "silken bands of mild government" were quickly removed by FDR's Brain Trust — the intellectual descendants of elite Europeans who came here after our revolution, when it became safe for them to work and rule. United in their disdain for individualism and capitalism, they believed that what had worked superbly in the past was accidental and, in any case, inadequate for the grand plans they had for the future. By concentrating immense political power and unlimited borrowing capacity (not to mention their self-evident genius) in Washington DC, they created a Leviathan that, through political will and money (i.e., coercion and bribery), would eliminate the mistakes of individuals and businesses. Their marvelously noble and compassionate programs — promising social justice, economic equality, academic excellence, financial security, etc.; the contrivances of Democrats and Republicans alike — have plagued us since, with painful failure.

Normally, it is the pain resulting from mistakes that brings success and prosperity. Individuals and businesses, even state and local governments, feel such pain when they ignore natural social and economic forces. They use it to correct their errors; it guides them on a path to their justifiable goals. But the government created in the 1930s does not feel the pain of its mistakes. Its errors simply propagated themselves through its programs — uncorrected, magnifying failure — and onto the economy. Over 80 years earlier, the French economist, Frédéric Bastiat, understood this inherent flaw when, in Economic Harmonies, he wrote of authoritarian intervention:

[E]vil . . . follows upon error, but it falls upon the wrong person. It strikes him whom it should not strike; it no longer serves as a warning or a lesson; it is no longer self-limiting; it is no longer destroyed by its own action; it persists, it grows worse, as would happen in the biological world if the imprudent acts and excesses committed by the inhabitants of one hemisphere took their toll only upon the inhabitants of the other hemisphere.

We reside in the hemisphere of falling evil. Medicare, a system in which retirees receive 2.32 to 6 times more in benefits than what they contribute, threatens to bankrupt the country. But this is not a lesson; "it persists, it grows worse," with the grander mistake of Obamacare. We endure the War on Poverty, a Lyndon Johnson, Great Society plan to eradicate poverty — in ten years! It persists today, almost 50 years later, with the government annually doling out over $60,000 per “poor” household, in effect, bribing some to stay in “poverty” with money stolen from others. Spending $3,000 per student, our public education system was the envy of the world, when, in 1965, the federal government stepped in to improve it. Driven by federal requirements, spending today is almost $15,000 per student, and our "improved" system is at best mediocre.

Failure has become the norm; worse, it has become acceptable. Other than the Interstate Highway System and the early, but brief, success of the EPA (now a tyrannical citadel of scientific fraud and political corruption), there is no federal program that is not a costly, feckless, ongoing failure.

The War on Poverty persists today, almost 50 years later, with the government, in effect, bribing some to stay in “poverty” with money stolen from others.

Acceptability of failure began with the New Deal, as it anesthetized capitalism and domesticated individualism. This paved the way for the technique of using failure as an opportunity for reward and, when executed properly, even praise. The Federal Reserve, which was responsible for the banking crisis of 1930–33, was thereafter rewarded with expanded control over banking. The federal government grew in power as FDR's Keynesian demand management policies took 16 years to bring the economy out of a downturn that should have lasted only four. Yet FDR is praised for the recovery. Today, president Obama uses the very same policies, with the very same result: immense debt and prolongation of the economic slump they are designed to remedy. And financial regulators, who failed to prevent the financial crisis that caused the slump, were rewarded with the vast powers of Dodd-Frank financial reform.

Why do we tolerate these mistakes? To a large extent, it is because of what de Tocqueville called a "soft despotism" of paternalistic government, a government made despotic by citizens happy to relinquish their individuality. In Democracy in America (1835), he spoke of "an immense, tutelary power" that renders us compliant and submissive to a government that keeps us "in perpetual childhood."

Then, there is our regulatory system — a morass of overbearing rules that controls every industry in our economy and almost every aspect of our lives. This is the system that de Tocqueville exquisitely anticipated when he wrote:

Thus, after taking each individual by turns in its powerful hands and kneading him as it likes, the sovereign extends its arms over society as a whole; it covers its surface with a network of small, complicated, painstaking, uniform rules through which the most original minds and the most vigorous souls cannot clear a way to surpass the crowd; it does not break wills but it softens them, bends them, and directs them; it rarely forces one to act, but it constantly opposes itself to one's acting; it does not destroy, it prevents things from being born; it does not tyrannize, it hinders, compromises, enervates, extinguishes, dazes, and finally reduces each nation to being nothing more than a herd of timid and industrious animals of which government is the shepherd . . .

We (not you and I, of course) have become timid and industrious animals. We are afraid to hold the federal government accountable for its chronic failures. This is not to say that it should have no meaningful role in solving our social or economic problems. But government, especially our central planners and our regulatory supervisors, should feel the pain of their mistakes, just as we industrious animals do ours — swiftly, and by means of demotion, termination, or jail time. Conversely, they should be rewarded for success. Better yet, delegate most of those shepherd jobs to state or local government, or even to the private sector, where mistakes are less painful and successes are more likely.

Or, perhaps, success is but a whimsical notion, as quaint as the ideas of freedom, individualism, and self-reliance that brought prosperity in pre-Leviathan days. Besides, who knows if the poor and uneducated of yesterday would prosper in America today? However, it is painfully ironic that today's poor and uneducated are not up to the task, as they are "met with nothing but the frowns" of our modern welfare system — a towering monument to despair, erected from the mistakes of an all-giving federal government.




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O Canada!

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“Canadians are the only people who take moderation to an extreme.”

— H. L. Mencken

Cross the border into Canada circa 2005, and the convivial pleasantries of the immigration official would only be interrupted — almost apologetically — by the requisite formalities. “Are you bringing in any liquor, beer, wine, or tobacco?” An honest declaration inevitably rendered a generous individual exemption.

No longer. Today Canadian immigration agents have taken a page — the third-degree page — from US Customs and Immigration: all obdurate business without a hint of foreplay.

“Are you carrying any self-defense devices such as guns, pepper spray, or mace?” The eyes narrowed down suspiciously, homing through the response to detect revealing body language.

We were. Pepper spray.

My wife and I were embarking on a mountain bike ride across Canada along the Trans Canada Trail (TCT), a dedicated, mostly back-country route for walkers, skiers, horseback riders, and bikers that crosses the country and which, in typical Canadian all-inclusive fashion, incorporates every province and territory. Our plan was to ride from the Pacific coast to the Atlantic, camping out along the way. Instead of lugging the more traditional panniers to carry our gear, we were pulling single-wheel BOB (beast-of-burden) trailers each loaded with tent, sleeping bags, cooking kit, etc.

British Columbia, with its accordion folds of Coast Mountains, Rocky Mountains, and subsidiary ranges, is teeming with bears. And pepper spray, the provincial parks’ wardens’ (rangers in the US) preferred bear deterrent, was our only legal protection. Curiously, although capsicum aerosols are legal, they must be labeled “for bears.” Ours were not, so they were confiscated. Perhaps some bears can read; or perhaps the label inhibits its use against other predators. Who can say? We later forked out $80 for two Canadian-made capsicum bear repellents with the proper government labels.

Not one question about drugs or suspicion about illegal stowaways. Canada’s priorities are obvious: first, a mirror image of the US concern over terrorism expressed by the immigration officer as a lack of civility; then a concern about liquor and tobacco smuggling (not only are vice taxes an important source of Canadian revenue but they embody a long tradition of reformist social policy that discourages unhealthy habits); and, finally, handgun prohibition. Canadians are proud of their civil society and deathly afraid of contracting what they perceive as a US epidemic of handgun violence.

Perhaps some bears can read; or perhaps the label inhibits its use against other predators. Who can say?

But a demand for handguns persists. Jock Bigjaw, a Dogrib First Nations (not his real name or tribe) leader and self-styled warrior, wanted a .357 Magnum. Jock was a big-rig hauler, a job that allowed him plenty of time to pursue his real passion — alpinism. We’d met on the flanks of Aconcagua in Argentina and hit it off, laughing ourselves into indignity at the 14,000 foot base camp. Politically, he believed in self-reliance and the Canadian government’s duty to adhere strictly to its treaties. Jock fought many of his fellow Indians’ sense of aimlessness, despair, and alcoholism by setting an example of achievement. He dreamed of being the first Native American to summit the Vinson Massif — the highest peak in Antarctica — and toured Canada’s Indian Reserves giving inspirational presentations at schools and community conclaves. In the world of Canadian indigenous peoples, Jock was a hero.

After the climb he asked me if I’d be willing to buy him a handgun in the US, meet him in Idaho during one of his cross-border forays, and sell it to him. Though he was apprehensive about buying the gun, he was untroubled about smuggling it into Canada. I agreed.

* * *

In spite of NAFTA, “free trade” remains an elusive concept — particularly at entry levels. After completing a guidebook (see About this Author) to sea kayaking the Inside Passage (three-quarters of which traverses the BC coast), I submitted the manuscript to Rocky Mountain Books, Canada’s premier outdoor guidebook publisher. They wanted it. However, because of my US citizenship, it did not qualify for certain subsidies offered by the federal and provincial governments — in effect, a quota system for Canadian authors that makes it hard for non-Canadians to compete (which is its intention). So, in the end, they declined it.

Just before crossing into Canada to start our bike trip, my wife and I stopped at Smith Rocks State Park in Oregon to do a little rock climbing. For this sport, Smith Rocks is a world-class destination. It is the birthplace of “sport climbing”, a relatively safe technique that in the 1980s allowed standards of difficulty to be pushed way beyond what anyone ever imagined.

Though he was apprehensive about buying the gun, he was untroubled about smuggling it into Canada.

Lacking a guidebook, I approached a large group of young climbers in the campground to get “beta” — route information. They were from NOLS, the National Outdoor Leadership School, an outgrowth of Outward Bound. NOLS teaches outdoor wilderness and survival skills. These kids had signed up for a month-long rock climbing course that was to take place at Squamish Chief, BC — Canada’s Yosemite. But a Canadian immigration officer had different ideas.

When asked the purpose of their visit, the instructors responded innocently and honestly. Although tuition had been paid in the US — and was already a done deal — the martinet declared that the NOLS program would unfairly compete with Canadian guide services. He refused entry into Canada to the two trailer-hauling vans with 24 kids and instructors. Smith Rocks was their consolation destination.

* * *

In spite of the border crossing unpleasantness and the high prices, it is alwaysa pleasure to be in Canada. A leisurely civility and understated formality barely conceal an endearing earnestness — about the most trivial of life’s minor curiosities — that disarms even the most irascible visitor. Canadians are patient, tolerant, and egalitarian to the core. While the American Declaration of Independence celebrates “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,” Canada’s founding document promises “peace, order and good government.” As Pierre Trudeau once belligerently declared, “We are in the extreme centre, the radical middle. That is our position!”Nonetheless, to the average American, Canadian politics are an irrelevant baffle mired in minutiae.

Perhaps what makes Canadian politics so unintelligible, frustrating, and yes, even boring to Americans, is the more than usual lack of congruence between political parties and any sort of principled political philosophy. Consistency has been sacrificed to national unity, growth, and development, which — in such a geographically sprawling and climatically extreme country — all parties promote through vigorous federal intervention and subsidies to make settlement and development of its inhospitable extremities more attractive.

While the American Declaration of Independence celebrates “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,” Canada’s founding document promises “peace, order and good government.”

This was all the easier because, unlike the US, which attempted to design a government from scratch based on the latest Enlightenment philosophy hot topic, Canada simply continued being a part of Britain, developing the same structure of government as the mother country, and following its lead in foreign and domestic policy.

Each election seems to be contested by politicians with a big wish-list of concrete promises that expediency and the demands of a fractious confederation often reverse 180 degrees within days of victory. Canada dodged the 2008 financial crisis through fiscal health and well-capitalized banks, with the “Loonie” shooting ahead of the US dollar for the first time ever. The Economist, however, avers that the housing market is frothy and likely to pop.

But we had more practical matters to consider. We drove to a West Vancouver marina and found a safe place to park our van for the duration of the bike ride, spending the rest of the day packing camping gear, tuning up the bikes, and making the myriad arrangements requisite for our trip — with Canadian talk radio in the background.

The controversy du jour was emblematic of Canadian attitudes, politics and the rise of China. A handful of young Oriental men (some of whom couldn’t speak English) had been arrested drag racing on a Vancouver street in Maseratis, Lamborghinis, Alfa Romeos and other such jet engines on wheels. The police had released them without filing charges. Speculation focused on the idea that wealthy and influential parents had pulled strings. Besides the predictable indignity over favoritism, suspected pay-offs, and police malfeasance, callers and host alike were incredulously outraged that common standards of Canadian propriety had been so contemptuously flaunted by drag racing on a staid city street.

Canada, with British Columbia in particular, has had a huge influx of rich Chinese immigrants — crony capitalists and rent seekers who have made fortunes in a changing China that lacks a rule of law and are using every trick availableto get their money out of the country. Unsurprisingly, China has currency export controls. With its lax immigration policy, passports that are virtually given away, comparative economic freedom, and relative proximity to China as a Pacific Rim neighbor, Canada is a preferred destination for Chinese oligarchs.

Our first day out covered 70 muscle-grinding miles through Vancouver and its suburbs, followed by a torrential downpour the following day. We took a rest day. By the end of the second week, we’d hit our stride and required a rest day only every 5 or 6 days. Much of our way was on “rails-to-trails”, old railway beds reclaimed for recreation. When present, these wilderness throughways profiling no more than a 3% grade made pedaling over BC’s mountain ranges a transcendent experience.

I commented to our host that I couldn’t imagine marching into battle to the strains of “O Canada.” She smiled and retorted, “We’re all about peace — and having fun!”

One of the first small towns we passed through, Gray Creek (pop. 125), had a refreshing libertarian flavor. The welcoming sign at the town limits proudly announced, “Gray Creek, still metric free.” When I groused about the $38 one-night, one-tent camping fee and the over-priced stale groceries, the good-humored campground and store owner-manager glibly blamed it all on the government.

Canada’s metric system is a bit of a Potemkin village — but with one real cannon that occasionally lobs a ball and messes things up. For one (as in Gray Creek), revanchists stubbornly adhere to the ergonomic English system. Yet, more fundamentally, the Dominion, surveyed by the British in the 18th and 19th centuries, is stuck with the mile-based Range & Township sectional land division, which rears its head nearly every time a property survey is necessary. In agricultural areas, rural roads retain a mile-based nomenclature (“Mile 154 Road”) and are located according to the old distances.

At Castlegar, a town of nearly 8,000 people located in the Selkirk Mountains at the confluence of the Kootenay and Columbia Rivers, we decided to splurge on an extended rest at a B&B. When we inquired at the tourist office, the attendant — without a hint of irony — informed us that Castlegar had suitably good motels, two campgrounds, but no B&Bs. Since British Columbia is the most British of Canada’s provinces, and B&Bs are a British invention, and they are common in Canada, I sensed something was amiss.

According to a café owner we befriended, a few years before — during an economic development spurt — the city fathers had invited a large, upper mid-range lodging chain to open a unit in town. In the US, when towns come calling for a local franchise, the chain, knowing it has an advantage, is not beyond asking for tax breaks or demanding a location it covets through the use of eminent domain. In Castlegar the quid pro quo took more of a Canadian turn — the elimination of an entire segment of the competition. In return for a fancy motel, the city council banned B&Bs.

An American can never spend much time in Canada without bumping — one way or another — into its famed health care system, usually (at the very least) as one of the first topics of conversation after an exchange of basic pleasantries. We’d heard of doctors going on strike and actually seen nurses striking (all of them are now public sector employees). In Castlegar, signs urging the government not to close 24/7 emergency medical services at the local hospital because of budget constraints were prominently displayed. These were nearly always twinned with another sign, hung by the firefighters’ union expressing opposition to theproposed closure.

As uninvolved tourists, we were entertained to observe another country’s political minuets without directly being involved. They gave us fodder for discussion as we pedaled up the Selkirk Range — but not enough to get us up the western slopes of the Rockies into Banff, where every breath up the technical single track was so precious it precluded conversation.

The town of Banff (Canada’s Aspen, Estes Park or Crested Butte, take your pick — but better), on the BC-Alberta border, is the center of Canada’s oldest national park: Banff National Park, the anchor for a series of parks that straddle the Rocky Mountains. Typical of such quaint alpine villages, it struggles to balance demand and development with retention of the picturesque ambiance that attracts tourists.

No amount of passing grades, accolades and applause, mortar boards and robes, paper diplomas or false confidence can replace or instill competence.

According to the August 30 issue of the Rocky Mountain Outlook, “Banff’s politicians are poised to revisit the controversial issue of setting quotas to control corporate chain stores and restaurants in the national park tourist town,” not only to preserve the community’s character but also because some homegrown businesses had already gone belly-up due to competition from recently opened national chain stores. Banff is already home to Starbucks (of course), Tim Hortons the coffee-and-doughnut chain(it wouldn’t be Canada without Tim Hortons), McDonald’s (which everyone abuses but patronizes), The North Face (it wouldn’t be a mountain town without The North Face), Tony Roma’s, The Gap, and others.

As with any scheme that preferentially treats one business over another, the details of this one are devilish to draw up and subject to corruption, with arbitrary choices that are based on aesthetics but that fundamentally affect livelihoods. As the newspaper reports:

The question of what level to set the quota is a challenging one. Options include back-casting the quotas to reflect the mix that existed during the 2008-2009 period when visitor surveys were done, capping at current levels or allowing a cushion, like 10% more. Banff’s senior planner said a quota below current levels creates instant pressure on existing situations, including the creation of legal, non-conforming uses, while a quota set too high doesn’t achieve the regulatory goals and becomes a zoning “paper tiger.”

So as not to kill the goose that lays the golden egg — not completely, at least — service stations, hotels and banks are not included in the proposedquota system.

Out of seven Banff City Councilors, only one declared unequivocal support for the free market; while the Mayor — like a good politician — concurred with him, but artfully hedged her position.

* * *

We took another multi-day rest at a friend’s home in Canmore, less than 20 miles from Banff and in just as stunning a location, to attend the annual Canmore Highland Games, an event Canadians take very seriously. It is absolutely nothing like the ersatz, corn-ball, out-of-tune bagpipe-screeching “highland games” not uncommon south of the border, attended by pot-bellied old men with giant calves in tams and kilts who can talk at length about Culloden, Bonnie Prince Charlie and what Mel Gibson doesn’t know about Robert the Bruce.

Attendance in the thousands, in spite of a prohibitively expensive admission fee; way over 100 pipe bands from all over the country, with electronically tuned bagpipes played by top-notch musicians of all ages, genders and colors; full-sized telephone poles that few men could even get erect for the caber toss; endless imported tap bitters, ales and stouts; more single malt whiskeys than you ever thought existed; haggis to die for (really!) and fish-and-chips with cod, haddock, salmon, and halibut choices. Even the step dancing competitions, from schools from all over Alberta, were top-notch. All on a perfectly turfed, quadruple-size football pitch ringed by giant, blindingly white campaign tents topped by Canadian flags — the whole surrounded up close by the crenelated limestone summits of the Fairholme and Rundle Ranges.

The festivities opened with a Royal Canadian Mounted Police regiment, an infantry division, and its 50-member pipe & drum band marching to the fore under the skirling strains of Scotland the Brave. The M of C then asked the crowd to stand for an a cappella rendition of O Canada, a composition I’d read much about but never heard — so I was particularly curious. Although the young lady did her best, the anthem was underwhelming. I commented to our host that I couldn’t imagine marching into battle to the strains of O Canada. She smiled, posed as if she were step dancing, and retorted, “We’re all about peace — and having fun!”

Descending the Rockies was a roller coaster ride. Nevertheless, we were concerned that once we were on the prairies, the ride would get boring over the flat, featureless terrain buffeted by endless winds. But when one expects the worst, things can only get better. And so it turned out. Our west-to-east direction virtually guaranteed a tail wind, and the artful design and routing of the TCT avoided traffic and kept our interest at ADD levels.

The prairies are cut by water courses carved through deep declivities and bordered by sirenic glens peppered with deciduous and evergreen copses. Quaint, colorful Hutterite colonies and Mennonite and Eastern Orthodox settlements, complete with metallic onion-domed churches incongruously plopped down in the middle of nowhere, enthralled us.

Even the imported oil-boom labor — people from 127 countries speaking 69 languages — can get mired in way-more-liberal-than-the-US Canadian immigration rules.

Still, we were concerned about a couple of routing questions. The TCT — again in typical Canadian all-inclusive fashion — was designed to go through every provincial capital. Edmonton, the capital of Alberta, is halfway up the province — far from the southern alignment we’d been following. The TCT then heads east and (back) down to Regina (rhymes with vagina, source of many a snicker), capital of Saskatchewan. Additionally, urban bike riding, especially with fully loaded BOB trailers, can be very trying. No worries — the TCT tied into extensive riverside urban trails through Calgary and Edmonton that displayed the best of both cities, slicing through downtowns and suburbs with equal aplomb.

We’d taken to eating breakfasts at fast food joints and cafes where the portions — and the clientele — were gargantuan (giving the lie to the old nutritionist’s tale that eating a healthy breakfast inhibits weight gain). The ubiquitous “We reserve the right to refuse service to anyone” signs posted in US cafes were nowhere to be found — probably too confrontational for Canadians. They were replaced by “Abuse will not be tolerated” signs that seemed to serve the same function — more politically correct, I suppose. These were sometimes coupled (at one Safeway, for example) with a poster of smiling employees — a black, a Caucasian, an oriental, an Indi…er, First Nations member, a Latino, an Inuit, an Indian or Pakistani-origin Muslim (you could tell from the forehead dot or the Muslim kufi), and of course, both sexes — touting diversity in employment practices.

Every one of these establishments in the Edmonton area carried the morning’s The Edmonton Sun with daily reports on the firing of Lynden Dorval, aka “the zeros teacher.” The Ross Shepard High School (part of the Edmonton Public Schools system) physics teacher had been fired after he gave a student a zero for not handing in an assignment.

“If students don’t do the work, they don’t deserve (a grade) and I stand by that,” Dorval was quoted as saying. Students, parents, the principal and even Edmonton Schools Superintendent Edgar Schmidt sported “Real heroes give Zeros” T-shirts in his support. But it was Schmidt, caving in to demands by the school board, who made the final call, stating that the firing was for “insubordinate, unprofessional” conduct.

The Sun, quoting Dorval,claimed that the firing was “for going against school policy by assigning students with a zero, rather than using the code system the school uses to evaluate work.” Both the Alberta Teachers’ Association (the union) and the school board were conducting investigations. Unstated but suspected is that the “code system” assigns some value to all work — including its absence. Perhaps, these people must reason, there is merit to merely being present — like Forrest Gump — when homework is assigned.

Political correctness (PC) run amuck? Definitely. We mustn’t ruin the students’ self-esteem.

I once argued with a couple — both teachers, one in the Pennsylvania Public School System, the other an Outward Bound instructor — about the consequences of failing students. The public school teacher, a union member, supported her school’s policy of never failing or expelling a student. Since “bad” students were usually “at risk” kids, failing or expelling them would just make an already bad situation worse, she argued. Her husband, the OB instructor, agreed.

So I asked them to imagine applying the same logic to instructing in rappelling (a technique for descending a cliff by zipping down a rope). In other words, telling a student who hadn’t mastered the technique that he was actually proficient at it. I said, “If he went out and tried rappelling on his own, the well-intentioned lie could cost him his life.” They couldn’t muster a reply.

The core problem with PC is that it wishfully reverses the order of cause and effect. No amount of passing grades, accolades and applause, mortar boards and robes, paper diplomas or false confidence can replace or instill competence. Moreover, it is condescending and patronizing — visibly signaling that the recipient can’t handle the truth. In fact, PC functions primarily, as David Foster Wallace has so eloquently expressed, “to signal and congratulate certain virtues in the speaker — scrupulous egalitarianism, concern for the dignity of all people, sophistication about the political implications of language — and so serves the self-regarding interests of the PC far more than it serves any of the persons or groups” who are the recipients of it. It is hypocrisy legitimized.

What’s more, many ofthe“at risk” kids (previously known as JDs — juvenile delinquents) are sharp, with well-developed BS antennae that can see right through the hypocrisy of patronizing, deceptive schemes. And they learn from them, using their new insights to game the system, while losing all respect for adults that are complicit in such manipulative behavior. That’s why they supported Dorval, who, by the way, was soon hired by a private school.

We didn’t run short of conversational topics when we turned east out of Edmonton and headed for the Saskatchewan border. Although the architects’ primary reason for this route was running through each province’s capital, there was a bonus: Edmonton’s latitude approximately coincides with the limits of agriculture.

North of the line, farms and roads disappear and the great northern Canadian wilderness rules. This made for a stunning ride. In places, giant combines were harvesting wheat and rape seed, the source of canola oil (Canadian oil) on farms run by Polish and Ukrainian immigrants. In others, hills studded with evergreens alternated with picturesque lakes surrounded by deciduous trees turning red and gold in the mid-September cold.

Peppering both the fields and the glens were “nodding donkeys” (oil pump jacks) and drilling rigs, while the occasional convoy of “thumpers” (seismic prospectors) tested the road shoulders for underground paydirt. Canada has the world’s third-largest proven oil reserves — most of it in northern Alberta’s oil sands — and 3,400 trillion cubic feet of natural gas in its shale beds. BC residents who live near the border nip over to Alberta for a cheaper fill-up.

The new discoveries, advanced drilling and fracking technology, and, as one oil-industry booster puts it — referring to less politically salubrious climes — “no bribes or body bags” are driving a boom no one is able to keep up with.

Several factors are holding back the bonanza. For one, there is no easy way to transport the thick crude out of northern Alberta. The US section of the proposed Keystone XL pipeline from Hardisty, Alberta to Port Arthur, Texas has not yet been approved by the Obama administration; while the Northern Gateway pipeline, proposed from Edmonton to Kitimat, BC, on the Pacific Coast (for exports to Asia) is being held up by environmental concerns and First Nation objections. The pipeline would cross aboriginal reserves.

“The other big bottleneck,” the November 17 issue of The Economist reports, “is human capital.” Hardly anyone lives near Fort McMurray, the closest city, and fewwant to move there in spite of the high wages and attractive incentives. Even the imported labor — people from 127 countries speaking 69 languages — gets mired in way-more-liberal-than-the-US Canadian immigration rules. “An Irish worker in Fort McMurray,” The Economist continues, “complains of having to fly to Calgary to sit a test of English proficiency. It’s her native language, and the test is online.”

* * *

When our canteens began freezing overnight, we decided it was time to go home.

At St. Paul we cadged a couple of discarded cardboard bike boxes from Canadian Tire, a megastore that combines aspects of Wal-Mart, Checker Auto and Sears (and whose business model still escapes me), to pack up our bikes for the Greyhound bus trip back to our van.

Next year — in Saskatchewan.

And, perhaps, another report.




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