I stepped quickly into the taxi in order to get out of the way of the Charlotte airport traffic. I didn’t even see the driver as I got in, but I was able to catch his picture on the ID on the back of the seat. I guessed that Mr. Faroud might be Egyptian and he was impressed that I’d guessed correctly. “Have you been to Egypt?” he asked, “Only as a tourist,” I responded.
Downtown Charlotte, NC
He asked me what I thought of the country and naturally I told him how much I enjoyed it, but I couldn’t help revealing that I thought it can be a bit difficult for tourists there as well. “Egypt may have been a tourist destination for longer than any other country in the world. I guess Egyptians know how to get the most from tourists.” His eyes narrowed as he looked back at me in the rearview mirror and he wanted to know how so. I described how, for example, the price of common place items like a falafel sandwich seem to be as much as the falafel seller can get.
I ordered the national dish of Egypt regularly from street side vendors and the price ranged from 5 to 50 Egyptian pounds. I discovered that if I didn’t ask how much it cost, but simply offered what I’d learned they cost elsewhere, then there was never any complaint. In Egypt it sometimes feels like you have to haggle over how much to pay for a newspaper even with the price printed right on the front page, but, hey, that’s the local culture. If you’re not prepared to negotiate prices, consider taking a tour, and living with prices that are still low, even if they are many times what you need to pay for things.
As we were arriving at my hotel in downtown, the driver began to tell me a story of his own. It seems when he first arrived in New York City, he was driven all around the town by an unscrupulous driver who charged him over $60 for the unrequested city tour. Later, when he returned to the city a bit wiser, he was able to get where he was going for less than half of that.
I guess it isn’t just Egyptians who are trying to get the most out of tourists. I’ll think about that more carefully, before mouthing off to the cab driver in the future.
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According to local Colorado lore, the midwest is filled with fat people. Statistics tell a similar story, with Colorado trailing the nation in weight and places like Ohio achieving much more impressive numbers in the obesity category. I think the news was getting to the open mic comics one Thursday night, at Surly Girl in Columbus, Ohio.
Columbus is likely not representative of the rest of Ohio. It’s a college town with one of the nation’s largest universities and young men and women in bright red shirts are a common sight. Most of them haven’t yet had the years to put on the pounds. Home of Nationwide Insurance, the downtown was populated with rather average, reasonably attractive business people who might be all too aware of the statistics on obesity and life expectancy. They beat a hasty retreat once evening had arrived, leaving the downtown slightly deserted. The remaining patrons of the local eateries were, most likely, like myself, visiting vagabonds on business.
A short walk to the “Short North,” the ritzy/hipster stretch of High Street leading from downtown to the heart of Buckeye Nation, or Ohio State University, was attended by a more local crowd. The mostly wealthy, gay, or, perhaps both rich and gay, clientele were definitely no thicker around the middle than in similar neighborhoods in Denver.
The Short North is an amusing area with a wide range of choices for eat and drink. The music/dive bar called Skully’s was no longer serving food by the time I arrived and after a friendly beer, la camarera recommended I head across the street to Surly Girl. It’s impossible to skip a place called Surly Girl, so off I went for another (tasty) local beer and a vegetarian version (!) of the Cincinnati chili. This classic Ohio meal consists of spaghetti topped with chili (and cheese and onions, if you get it “three ways,” or is that four…). It’s not the height of cuisine and might explain why it’s not travelled very far from Ohio, but it’s satisfying.
Other meals I had during my visit to Columbus made it easy to understand where the rumors of spreading midwestern waistbands might be coming from. At Barley’s Brewery across from the convention center in downtown, I had a grilled cheese with perogies. The grilled cheese was uninteresting, the perogies delicious, but the whole meal ran the color gamut from off white to beige. The happy hour menu was a tempting array of brats, dogs, and wings, and the rest of the folks holding up the bar were enthusiastically tucking in.
Back at Surly Girl, I learned that tonight was open mic comedy night. Free comedy in small bites from anyone wanting to try out their material in front of a welcoming crowd. Comics are characteristically a self deprecating lot, and the nights comics spent a significant portion of their material blaming Ohio for boredom, small mindedness, and expanding girth. Thing is, one comic, actually a formerly obese man whose act mocks the reactions to folks at his journey to lose hundreds of pounds, wasn’t the only one who wouldn’t look out of place in the thinnest state. It seems the legends of the midwest were made without bothering to look around Columbus; they weren’t fat at all! Boulder, Colorado is sometimes known as the little town surrounded on all sides by reality. For all I know, Columbus, Ohio is surrounded on all sides by plus-sizes and big bones.
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Dictatorship is bad. Democracy is good. Everybody knows that. Free market guy that I am, I feel much the same way about control economy (like dictatorship) compared to capitalism (like democracy.) That’s why my trips to China have really thrown a wrench into works of my brain. I’ve spent some time trying to pull that wrench out. Here’s what I think it looks like.
China is a dictatorship. Actually, it’s an oligarchy, but what it’s not is a democracy. The social contract that the Chinese have signed with their government goes something like: we’ll let you make all the political decisions so long as you leave us alone to make money and buy things. And the government has heartily agreed. For the most part, people are allowed to pursue what looks quite a bit like free market capitalism and the government is allowed to rule by fiat and to make long term social and infrastructure decisions that even when the people don’t much agree, they keep quiet about it.
Most Chinese people don’t like things like the Three Gorges Dam, or the lack of a free press, but they do like their dramatically improved standard of living over the last thirty years. Of course there are a great many poor in China, but, today there’s more than a United States full of people, that is 300 million of them, who live, more or less, pretty much just like we do in the west. They have computers and cell phones, Nike shoes and Chinese MTV. They’re more interested in fads then federal government and they’re hoping to try the new mediterranean restaurant that opened up down the block sometime soon. Day-to-day life is fine. They’ve got software that sneaks around the government censors for internet and they speak openly about how they feel to friends and even tourists. They’re fiercely (and justifiably) proud of the great and varied nation in which they live.
How is this possible if dictatorship is so bad? It’s kind of like Microsoft Windows. Microsoft may be (or even have been, if you like) a monopoly, able to control everything in its market like a dictator can in his country, but as long as they make good decisions and make relatively good software that works and does what most everyone needs, there is little reason to complain. Macintosh users may (or may not) have it better, but the whiny minority (of which, in the name of full disclosure I belong) is losing out on all the advantages that centralized power truly brings.
In China, when the government puts its mind to change something, it is incredibly effective. Compare a simple example. Recently, they decided that all these plastic bags at grocery stores were a bad idea. And, by edict, all grocery stores were banned from giving them out. It’s a great idea and the people quickly adapted. Meanwhile, forward thinking San Francisco and a few Alaskan villiages are some of the few in the United States to do the same.
During a business trip to China I was struck by government authorities I met. Mid-level people who are clearly competent technocrats and nothing like politicians I’ve met in the U.S. I can’t even call them politicians. They spoke about items of substance and understood the topics as well as any of the technical people in the room. These technicians of government do not have to ask their constituents for approval, but they’re highly educated people who have been, by and large, making good decisions for the past thirty years and China’s ascendance is undeniable proof of their success.
All this is a huge dilemma for me. The whole concept of a control economy run by a small oligarchy is anathema to me. Were George Orwell, Ayn Rand, and Anthony Burgess wrong in all those books I read? I struggled to find flaws in the system and prove myself right. First idea: even the Chinese will lament the lack of a free press. We have a free press in the United States. I run little risk of arrest by writing this blog. Except, that we Americans seem unwilling to pay for the press that we have and barely value what’s left of it. Newspapers are closing down at an alarming rate and editors are forced not to seek out the news that we need to hear in favor of what we want to hear. Far from being biased towards the left or the right, the U.S. media is biased towards keeping its job, which means making money, which means whatever it guesses will sell the most ads. If the people love George Bush, the papers do to. If they hate him, so does the evening news. If the polls love Obama, then NPR thinks he’s the power of change. If they turn against him, CNN will join the fray. Whatever sells papers and justifies ad revenues is what gets the most attention. Who can blame them? We have a free press in the United States, we’re just not using it.
So what’s wrong with these benevolent dictators then? During a recent discussion in China, and Chinese colleague put it succinctly and it finally answered my dilemma.
China is governed by people, not laws.
The Chinese model has been successful because of the people in power. Apparently, they’re honestly talented and well-meaning, and they are not required to kowtow to special interests at every turn. The Chinese people are in good shape…so long as they have good people steering the ship. But what if they don’t? What happens when someone not so benevolent comes to power?
Being governed by people instead of a system isn’t just dangerous, it suffers from a limited attention span, too. The Chinese oligarchy is, indeed, very effective. Beijing was cleaner for the Olympics and those pesky plastic bags are gone, but there is only so much bandwidth for the authorities to enforce regulation and address new concerns. Pollution is a serious problem in China that no one denies, but little is done so far. The people and the government are both troubled, but frankly, they have bigger fish to stir fry. Three hundred million people may be living middle class western lives, but that leaves another billion in a falling apart shack.
The Chinese have every reason to be proud of their beautiful country and amazing progress. There is much to enjoy and appreciate and, even if it pained me to admit it, their system works far better than I would like to give it credit. My worry for them is if it’s sustainable. Can those billion people rely on replacing great technocrats with new ones who also make the right decisions? Is it even possible for a system which depends on the vagaries of people to even effectively address all the concerns and needs of the people they govern and the society they guide?
Continued success in China will depend on the tradition of government being passed on to the next generation of leaders. Each of those leaders will face greater and greater challenges with the same limitations on bandwidth that their predecessors faced. No one would describe the United States as a flawless gem, (alright, some right wing nuts might) but, even in the face of economic crisis and adventurous wars, we can be confident that we are not at the mercy of a few individuals, and that our system of laws, like a good user manual, guides the country forward, even if people sometimes forget to read it.
Whew. I almost had to delete this old post .
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