Archives for: April 2011
The Canyon Book
Much like the Grand Canyon, a good novel has multiple layers. While the main characters hash their way through the jungle of its plot, the book displays the unfolding drama simultaneously on several interconnected platforms, thus illuminating its salient aspects one by one. Life is intrinsically multifaceted, and because art loves to imitate it, most novels are like that. Their narratives cascade down in a host of parallel interactions without delineating clear borders between the individual fates. Flat linear stories wouldn't make the reality very enticing, would they?
Yet that's exactly what many tourists choose when they arrive at the edge of the Grand Canyon. They pop into the Visitor's Center and then they orderly skirt the rim, moving from one bus stop to another and clicking their point-and-shoots in a rhythmical monotony of marital conversation. They do get to see new formations at every overlook, but view them from the same elevation and consequently from the same vertical angle. Yep, even the Grand Canyon has a generic version. And that's all they get for their clicking efforts, unless they discover one of the inconspicuous inner trails and have a good sense of hopping on it.
Then the great book of the Colorado river suddenly opens. Every leg of the winding path opens a new chapter which shows its protagonists from a wide variety of angles - whether they be the protruding mesas, solitary buttes, massive promontories, labyrinthine inner canyons, half hidden precipices, rambling ridges or awe inspiring rock faces. Sometimes you can barely hang onto the steep path but the effort is richly rewarded. The elements that were almost invisible from the top now blossom in front of your eyes and even the previously seen features are altered by the new perspective and the slanting sun rays. And I am not even mentioning the endemic views that every elevation offers - the configurations that you simply won't see from anywhere else.
Trekking through life is a similar experience. You can view it from the rim, never leaving the social layer you happen to belong to, or you can find a concealed spoor and delve into it headlong. Despite of what your peers tell you, you may discover that every stratum has its unique and not easily emulated charm. That's mostly because fun is amazingly ubiquitous. A cushioned seat in the symphony hall can support just as much audio bliss as a wooden bench at a jazz concert. A margarita sipped at an opening night in an art gallery is as refreshing as a cold glass of beer downed after a soccer game. Whether you choose yacht or canoe, golf or bowling, National Audubon Society or a local club for advanced knitting techniques, new vistas will open right in front of your eyes. And best of all, denizens of each subculture will give you a different take on life. Sure, strutting out of a sailor's tavern in a deeply stewed disposition may compromise your social standing, but you will discover colors unseen. For the great thing about life is that it bursts with flavors no matter where you bite into it.
Just like the canyon trail.
The Unsung Villain
Driving in the West makes you acutely aware of many things, not the least of which is the price of crude oil - currently hovering between $100 and $110. While on the East coast 200 miles moves you easily across several states, here it barely pushes you from one town to the next. And your gas tank is well aware of it.
In a country so depending on petrol, such price action calls for an immediate witch hunt. Every price conscious economic guru and a middle class champion spends considerable air time pointing their accusatory finger at various culprits - and there are quite a few to choose from. The industrial boom in developing markets consumes a lot of energy, especially in China and India. Hundreds of millions of their citizens are waking up to the pleasures of independent transportation. The specter of the Arab Spring circles around Saudi oil fields in ever tightening circles, while across the Mediterranean the control of the Libyan production seesaws whimsically between Colonel Gaddhafi and rebellious opposition forces. Recently, every talking head is slamming its forehead with a profound observation that the easy oil is gone and we'll all have to drill deeper into the sea, shale, arctic or some such hostile environment. Those are all valid reasons, but in the midst of all the learned handwringing, one culprit of skyrocketing gas prices is conspicuously missing. The monetary policy of the central bank - the Federal Reserve.
The heart of the matter is very simple. We pay for the crude with money. Under normal circumstances the value of that money is backed by the goods and services produced in the economy and as such it is relatively stable. However, if the central bank has to print (or electronically create) a lot of unbacked dollars, the value of each greenback tanks accordingly and with it the amount of stuff we can buy with it. Any monetary binge is like a flood, it lifts anything that floats. Anything that has an intrinsic value becomes more expensive - stocks, goods, oil, other commodities, grandfather clocks, you name it.
To paper over the costly blunders made in the runup to the banking crisis of 2008, the Fed chairman Ben Bernanke simply conjured up trillions of fresh dollars on the Fed balance sheet and handed them over to the perpetrators - without demanding that the bondholders, shareholders or officers that profited from this Ponzi scheme be punished first. Such omission made the final cost higher and the excessive risk taking more popular than ever. Thus the wealthy moneychangers went back to their old games while we, the taxpayers, are stuck with the bill. And we'll pay for it slowly over the coming decades with the loss of the purchasing power of our currency.
To add insult to injury, his noble rescue efforts ended with high financiers. Take Louisiana fishermen, for instance, the most recent victims of our endless quest for more oil. After the BP disaster, they were left floundering on the well lubricated beaches - just like many other small businesses struggling for survival. No low interest loans came their way, although large corporations, often of foreign origin, had virtually unlimited access to the Fed's magic purse.
Bernanke's ongoing efforts to mop up the financial mess with our money wreaked an obvious havoc on its value and effectively made each family pay for the financial triage he implemented through higher prices - whether at the gas station or at the grocery store. Not that money printing solves anything, but in a subtle and diabolically clever way, it spreads the problem over a wider population. Everybody chips in a bit, so that the ill gotten gains from the bubble years don't have to leave the comfortably deep pockets. To paraphrase Churchill, never before have so many paid dearly for the mistakes of so few.
The central bank's 100th anniversary is approaching fast (in 2013). Perhaps we could use this occasion to take a break and with the cool head reevaluate its utility. It is becoming clearer and clearer that the Fed's policies protect interests of the big banks rather than those of small depositors or the society as a whole. Bernanke's only excuse for the endless stream of bailouts has been the threat of a catastrophic financial collapse. Well, if that's the case then it is high time to redesign the monetary system in such fashion that our money would not be held hostage to the whims of the Wall Street cabal. Such reform might erase a zero or two from the size of their beloved bonuses, but for the rest of us, it will make the gas a little bit cheaper.
Curtailing the Fed's autocratic powers would be a good start.
The Peaks of Arizona
The West is majestic and mystical. The cathedral of freedom on one hand. The declaration of spirituality on the other.
And no, I don't mean the get-rich-quick kind of spirituality channeled by booming televangelists in their ostentatiously packed megachurches. I am talking about the natural spirituality of the land whose essence subtly resonates with its people - like a universal soul steeped in timeless legends and cloaked in a seemingly infinite prairie. Toss a basket full of feathers into a deep gorge and for a split second you catch a glimpse of the eternal truth. It can be a revealing experience.
The moment you hit the road in the West, you can sense a profound change in this planet's milieu. The fresh smell of the breeze, the loose fitting sky, the evening songs of the setting Sun, the distant horizon with a lick of an attitude. It's hard to describe, but any time I drive there, a wave of unforgiving beauty washes over me. It must be coming from the ubiquitous mountains - those frozen undulations of Earth that make the West so genuinely three dimensional. Those slumbering giants silently bathing in space.
And let's be clear: in the West, space is a staple. If you drive along I-40 west from Flagstaff, you'll see no shortage of it. And no shortage of mountains either. A range after range will unfold in front of your eyes and tempt your imagination to take a hike. The small bulbous hills that would make for a leisurely afternoon stroll. The higher tops whose conquest might warrant a full day trip. Even those crowned with reddish rocks that could require a bit of technical climbing. Each peak represents a standing dare. A slumbering dream bathing in your inner space.
And that's the true spirit of the West.
Being exposed to these challenges on a daily basis molds your character. It makes you take a risk. I bet if you delve into the foothills, each bluff will greet you with a little sign that says "Climb me!". Those little heapy rascals have no shame teasing you with the magic pill of this vast Wonderland. But it is more than a challenge. It is an invitation to unleash the loaded slings of opportunity.
Big actions have big consequences. Sometimes it may take a while for them to percolate through the maze of causes and effects, but eventually they make it to the surface. Often with a vengeance.
Japanese know this firsthand. The historic earthquake that tossed their main island some 8 feet aside last month wasn't the only torment inflicted on the world's third largest economy. It had a sinister accomplice - a massive and equally devastating tsunami that followed in its wake. The law of mechanics dictates that such colossal tectonic rearrangement is bound to have severe secondary effects. You simply cannot toss a refrigerator into a pond from the roof of your house and expect it to sink quietly to the bottom without causing a single wave.
Human history is no exception to this law.
A few weeks ago I visited Newseum in downtown DC - a multi-floor tribute to the popular modern trade of news gathering. One room that especially caught my eye had a large collection of front pages of major dailies sorted by year - all neatly arranged into a fascinating cross section of the twentieth century. Sometimes you appreciate the true impact of events only when you see them condensed into a compact timeline. As we were walking alongside the parade of cover stories, I realized how truly cataclysmic the second World War was. The destruction and carnage set off in motion by Adolf Hitler had acquired epic proportions even when judged by the savage standards of the human race, one of the most self-violent races in the known Universe. It was an unprecedented social earthquake, which - much like its geological counterpart - had serious consequences. The period following the War, say late 40s and early 50s, was a tumultuous time filled with aftershocks and tsunamis: the China revolution, the fall of Eastern Europe into Stalin's hands, the creation of Israel, independence of India and Pakistan, national awakening in Africa, you name it. Hundreds of revolutions were finding their way to the surface through the shaken foundations of the Old World.
But there is a more recent example. In 2008, the world's financial institutions experienced a series of major tremors. Bear Sterns, Lehman Brothers, Merrill Lynch were all wobbling like a set of wine tumblers in a liquor cabinet of a storm ridden ship. The Wall Street's proverbial "debt drunkenness" sent the tectonic plates of the world's banking system into a bout of furious spasms that were felt around the whole globe - from New York to Shanghai and right back via the confounded stock exchanges in London. Interestingly, three years later, with economy slowly recuperating, it seems that contrary to predictions of doomsayers we managed to emerge from this shock relatively unscathed.
Or did we? Sometimes, I get this eerie feeling that just below the monetary horizon a major tsunami is forming - soon to hit our shores with a vengeance.