A Reflective

NEAR EL BOLSON, Argentina

 With my body busy doing physical labor on this Patagonia farm, my mind often wandered into the meta-physical.

Regardless of task – removing potatoes, making apple juice or cutting brush – I would search for a pseudo philosophy about the choices made and reasons stated as to how and why I arrived here.

26 years old. Three months ago, I quit my job in Minnesota to travel around Latin America. Three months from now, I will return home with vague notions of what my next step will be.

Without regret and interested in any theory, I hypothesized off a passage from writer Wallace Stegner.

I paraphrase: Whatever landscape a child is exposed to early on, that will be the sort of gauze through which he or she will see the world afterward.

Hmm.

The first landscape I vividly recall is the dense woods behind one of my first childhood homes in Princeton, Ill. I remember joyous times exploring the land with my brother, cousins and other neighborhood kids. We would sled down a ravine in winter and swim in the creek in summer.

Another early landscape was the system of parks and trails that spread like tentacles around another childhood home at the end of a cul-de-sac in Ames, Iowa. I remember where we flew kites, rode bikes and played football. I could map its layout today.

Maybe those memories are why I chose a Minnesota college in bucolic Duluth rather than boring Mankato. Maybe those memories are why I often enjoy a snowshoe or a walk through the woods on my parents’ farm in Pine City, Minn.

Another prominent recall is how my childhood was more about landscapes than landscape. Change was constant when I attended five elementary schools in five years. I remember walking into strange classrooms and feeling anxious and a bit queasy without a friendly table in the lunchroom. I made it work.

Maybe those memories are why I consider myself adaptable, open to new experiences. Maybe those memories are why I spent a month working on a farm in picturesque Patagonia.  

Hmm.

The EIA

Not to be confused with the CIA, this government organization will not infringe on your privacy.

The Environmental Incentive Agency is a hypothetical, voluntary program for U.S. citizens, who choose to be rewarded for acting in a green manner.

The other day, Suzie and Pessa lamented about how people don’t consider the environment before acting. Suzie, the conscientious Austrian farmer here, proposed a lifestyle tax, an effort to charge people for using or doing things in an unhealthy, un-environmental way. This isn’t new. I believe the fabled economist Adam Smith came up with the concept of taxing everything that wasn’t essential, every want from sugar on.  

Suzie believed the tax would be an incentive for people to shape up. Taxes, obviously, are not well received, even if your best interest is in mind. (Just ask Suzie and Harold about their feelings on the 8-10 percent tax they pay for selling firewood to neighbors. They want to sustain themselves; Argentina would like a cut. No pun intended.)

The Environmental Incentive Agency would not tax you for driving a gas guzzler. However, the EIA would, in essence, provide a tax rebate if you drove a petrol pincher. It would provide a rebate if you drove less than x number of miles per year, consumed less than x number of gallons of water per year. It would provide a rebate if you used canvas bags instead of paper or plastic at the grocery store. It would provide a rebate if you kept an active library card. And so on.

For example, the Jiffy Lube attendant would record your mileage in the same manner he does now when you get an oil change, but he would be duplicating the easy notation on your EIA mileage form.

All the paperwork would be accounted by government officials at your local or regional EIA office. The yearly rebate would be directly deposited into your checking account.

The EIA would be its own stimulus package. It would provide employment during a slow recovery. It would stimulate healthy living. It would be an incentive to consider the environment.

The funding, you ask? Pessa suggested that the EIA’s budget could be a 1 percent slice off the U.S. defense budget. That should be good for a few billion.

(Hmm. Now, in full disclosure, I’m admittedly ignorant to whether this program exists in any capacity. I wonder if there has been a thought at a real think tank. I wonder if there has been a bill introduced in some legislative body somewhere. I would be open to anyone’s reflections. Anyone?)

Two Cents

The latest cliché includes any reference to an individual or collective group “tightening its belts.”

These groups of trite words are in regards to the worldwide economic recession, and have been used from everyone from Pawlenty to probably Putin.

The phrase is especially prescient today in Greece, where, thanks in part to Goldman Sachs, the economy is downtrodden in debt. A decade ago, it was Argentina that was down.

This Latin America country had $140 billion in foreign debt and its strategy of pegging its peso to the U.S. dollar wasn’t working. In 2001, Argentina hit crisis level. Debt had risen to 50 percent of GDP. The peso went from an exchange rate to the U.S. dollar of 1:1 to 2:1 in a couple weeks.

Argentines watched their savings evaporate.  And in an effort to curtail the crisis, the government capped the amount people could withdraw. The move exacerbated the crisis. Argentina had five presidents in two weeks of January 2002.

In the enlightening book “Gringo,” journalist Chesa Boudin recounted his experience in Buenos Aires.

“I could observe the effects of the crisis all around me,” he wrote. “The hardest hit among the middle class went from being well paid professionals with savings and retirement plans to living on the street. I watched entire families teaming up to work through garbage piles more efficiently: the father and the oldest child, perhaps 12 or 14, would wade deep into piles of bags to systematically search for cardboard, tin, glass or anything of value that might have made its way into the trash. The middle kids, 8 or 10, would relay the finds between the refuse and the mother, who held little ones close and kept watch over the cart they used to transport their worldly possessions and salvaged recyclables. Street children, abandoned and alone, were omnipresent, hustling, sleeping, begging, crying.”

A portion of Argentina’s debt was with the International Monetary Fund. The IMF, essentially a for-profit bank, grants these loans on the terms that the country pays back the loans with interest.

Back in 2002, Argentina couldn’t even manage interest payments to the IMF.

Boudin wrote that newly-elected president Nestor Krichner negotiated with creditors and won a rescheduling of $84 billion and cancelled debt to the IMF with a single payment of $9.8 billion. The payment saved the country of $842 in interest payments.

Who helped Argentina get above water? It was that man considered a tyrant in the U.S.: Hugo Chavez. The Venezuelan president purchased $3 billion in debt to allow Argentina to get out from under the IMF.

The hold of the IMF comes with the austerity condition it forces the country to impose. The country, just as Greece is doing today, must cut social service spending, freeze pay and retirements and shred jobs. That public money is used to pay off the debt.

Scenes of Greek citizens protesting these austerity conditions were seen this week on the BBC World News. 

According to Boudin, Krichner, Argentina’s president, increased social spending, encouraged domestic production of goods (known as import substitution), made credit lines available for other corps, improved tax collection and increased social spending while reining in other budget items.

I read about Argentina’s economic crisis while in Ecuador, and Suzie brought it up soon after we arrived in Patagonia.

Suzie, who has been in Argentina for about 13 years, talked about the slow pace of business here and how it limits the progress of the farm.

“Things worked better when no one had money,” she said. “People exchanged goods and services. There was little corruption. Things got done.”

I saw this ring true on a recent errand run to El Bolson. We waited for an hour while the construction company searched for a can of paint we wanted to purchase. That’s not exactly efficient business.

The economic crisis of 2001 and 2002 might have aided Suzie and Harold’s 200-acre organic farm, but Boudin also wrote about the larger scope.

In particular, Boudin touched on how neo-liberalism, or the intended globalization of Latin America by Anglo-Saxon corporations, precipitated the crisis. He wrote about how common citizens ended up paying the price with fewer services, fewer available jobs, less savings.

Newsweek columnist William Underhill recently praised how Ireland launched “austerity programs with startling severity.” He said Ireland is an example for Greece.

“[Ireland’s] welfare budget was slashed by a third. Civil service workers received and average pay cut of 7 percent. [There are] retirement freezes and thousands of jobs might disappear.”

Those facts were of passing acknowledgement to Underhill and his tidy 20-inch column. After pointing out improving GDP numbers and trade surpluses, which are more important to this neo-liberal, his column finished with his most important point:

“And Ireland remains a popular choice for U.S. investors.”

(Hmm. I’m particularly interested in the reflections of Theo and Blake. Either of you two men who’ve lived in Argentina feel inclined to comment?)

Unquote” Alejo Carpentier

The following passage is from “The Kingdom of This World.” It’s a fictional book based on Haiti’s liberation from French rule centuries ago. The book’s main character – Ti Noel – is a slave whom was subjected to brutality, received a bit of freedom and was discontented with what he did with it.

“Ti Noel had squandered his birthright, and, despite the abject poverty to which he had sunk, he was leaving the same inheritance he had received: a body of flesh to which things happened. Now he understood that a man never knows for whom he suffers and hopes. He suffers and hopes and toils for people he will never know, and who, in turn, will suffer and hope and toil for others who will not be happy either, for man always seeks happiness far beyond that which is meted out to him. But man’s greatness consists in the very fact of wanting to be better than he is: In laying duties upon himself.”

G

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2 responses to “A Reflective

  1. I spent 30 minutes in line at the ATM the other day, not sure what that means, only that people like to “hacer fila” here. Ohh there’s a line, let’s go stand in it. If anything I’ve learned the value of patience.

  2. Sorry I took so long to post a reply, I have spent the past 45 minutes catching up on all your posts…. The recent history of argentina, both in economic and social terms, has both resembled and differed from other third world or developing countries in important respects. The effects of the IMF programs on the country have been well documented and it seems that you are familiar with that history. I think it is important to note just to what extent that the process of neo-liberal reforms forced on the country by the IMF and the all-too-happy-to-collude politicians in Argentina (read former president Carlos Memnen and his cronies) is a living memory for Argentines and Portenos, something that is ingrained into their experience of everyday life that is hard for people from our generation in the US to understand. The widespread social upheveals that resulted from the 2001 crisis were indeed widespread. I remember talking to people that went from being university graduate architects to cab drivers, and they considered themselves lucky! I am sure you have noticed by now the segment of society in Buenos Aires that makes their living by sifting through other peoples rubbish in the hopes of finding material to recycle, the so called carteneros. These people literally did not exist in any substantial numbers before 2001. When I was living there in 2007 you would seem them everyday all over the city.

    There was indeed a turn around that happened under the leadership of Nestor Krichner, which has resulted in GDP growth of something like 70% since 2001, but the key to all this i think is what the crisis allowed to emerge in amongst the people of Argentina. That is it opened up the political space for self organization at a grass roots level, both inside and outside of political parties. The popular assemblies that sprung up and the spontaneous protest of the people of argentina are what forced Krichner to adopt the policies that he did. It is a political truism that politicians will not move to address popular concerns unless pressure is applied to them form below. While thing have stabilized in the argentine economy and business as usual has largely returned, there is still a large segment of society that is being left out. Whether they can mobilize enough popular support to re-balance the inequality of society, as they are attempting to do in Venezuela, is a matter of organization and struggle against the very powerful argentine bourgeios. In my opinion not that likely at the moment, although the struggle is more advanced there than in the US or Europe.

    As to the pace of economic life, I think Blake summed it up well with the ‘hacer fila’ the waiting in lines, the bureaucracy, the different cultural emphasis of levels of productivity and life in general. If you want to watch a great documentary on the 2001 crisis and the neo-liberal ‘reforms’ (i.e. fire-sale of public assets) that led up to it you should check out Memoria De Un Saqueo. It is very informative and moving.

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