Getting a Global Perspective

“I’ve been everywhere, man
I’ve been everywhere, man.
Crossed the desert’s bare, man.
I’ve breathed the mountain air, man.
Of travel I’ve had my share, man.
I’ve been everywhere.”

— Johnny Cash, “I’ve Been Everywhere”

Addison WigginDear Reader,

We’re flipping the script for this week and next. We’ll be featuring (and posting videos) from some old friends and a new one. In the process, we’ll span the globe from Australia to Buenos Aires… from Ukraine to New York City… and then Lebanon and Amman, Jordan. 

First up will be my conversation with Joel Bowman, the globe-trotting host of the Bonner Private Research podcast. An Aussie by birth, Joel has racked up quite the collection of passport stamps. Today he’s in Argentina, where he’s witnessing out-of-control inflation — and increasing interest in cryptocurrencies — firsthand.

Our conversation covers his thoughts on trade sanctions against Russia… the policies that led to Argentina’s current state… and the potential for governments to continue weaponizing money… 

I reached out to Joel after reading his poetic take on mortality in the nation he’s temporarily calling home. You’ll find it below. Enjoy — Addison

Death in the Afternoon

“To be immortal is commonplace; except for man, all creatures are immortal, for they are ignorant of death; what is divine, terrible, incomprehensible, is to know that one is immortal.”

— Jorge Luis Borges

Joel BowmanEverything is illuminated against its opposite; truth against fallacy; light against darkness; life against death. And who would have it any other way, even if they could? What would life on this mortal coil be, for instance, without the eternity of its terminally mysterious counterpoint?

If there exists a perfect setting for these and associated meditations, it must surely be the magnificent Recoleta Cemetery, located right here in Buenos Aires. On any given weekend, this sacred resting place for thousands of the city’s most famous — and infamous — people is found to be one of the liveliest places in town. Notable interments include a who’s-who list of Argentine writers, painters, poets, musicians, scientists and luminaries from other noble fields of interest. And, because nothing, including death, is beyond the law of equilibrium, a handful of politicians also rot underfoot.

Tourists pour in to adorn Maria Eva Duarte de Perón’s grave with flowers, for instance, bypassing the resting place of a Nobel Prize-winning chemist and a dozen honest writers to do so. Other, temporary attendees pose with Colgate smiles to have their picture taken beside weeping cement angels, frozen, as they are, in a state of perpetual sorrow. Young boys give the “peace” symbol next to the generals’ tombs whose armies laid to waste tens of thousands of men, not much older than they, the bodies of whom are long forgotten, their makeshift graves unmarked.

Nowhere does irony live a fuller life than in a cemetery.

Walking among the deceased, reading bookend dates on the bronze plaques, one is reminded of the finite nature of all things; organisms, currencies, political regimes, class structures. When the cemetery was constructed, back in 1822, it must have been a good ride from the exclusive barrios of San Telmo and Montserrat. The rich probably wouldn’t have been caught dead around the grounds of the Monks of the Order of the Recoletos, nor near the shabby, patchwork graveyard that was built there the same year the group disbanded.

Half a century later — and with Argentina still reeling from the War of the Triple Alliance and its own, subsequent civil war — a yellow fever epidemic tore through the capital city. Its wealthier, southern quarters were among the worst hit areas. Death toll estimates range from thirteen to twenty-five thousand. The clase alta packed up and moved north, largely into and around the Recoleta barrio. As such, the marbled vaults came to be populated with members of this same aristocracia, who, though they escaped the fever, came to rest here eventually just the same.

Today, you could buy an entire building in San Telmo for the same price as some of the finely appointed homes in Recoleta. An entire block in Montserrat might go for half that much.

And so it goes. People die… cities and empires crumble to the ground… and time, indifferent to the fleeting anguishes and triumphs of men, presses on.

At the turn of the twentieth century, Argentina was ranked as the eighth most prosperous nation on earth. Only Belgium, Switzerland, Britain and a handful of former English colonies — including the United States — were more favorably positioned, economically. In 1913, Argentina’s bustling, cosmopolitan capital, Buenos Aires, had the thirteenth highest per capita telephone penetration rate in the world. Her per capita income was, around this time, 50% higher than in Italy, almost twice that of Japan and five times greater than its northern neighbor, Brazil. Argentina’s industry churned out quality textiles and leading-edge, refrigerated shipping containers carried her prized beef, first introduced in 1536 by the Spanish Conquistadors, from the fertile plains of the pampas to the farthest reaches of the known world.

As the century wore on, protectionist policies at home and increased competition from the export-led, post-WWII economies — particularly from Japan and Italy — undermined Argentina’s international advantage. From 1900 through to the beginning of the new millennium, Argentina’s real GDP per person grew at a rate of 1.88% per year. Brazil outpaced her handily, clocking a 2.39% annualized growth rate. Japan, starting with a real GDP per person of just over $1,500 (2006 dollars) at the turn of the twentieth century, grew an average of 2.76% per year. By the middle of last decade, Japan’s real GDP per person had doubled that of Argentina. By 2020, it was more than quadruple.

The phenomenon is so conspicuous, the local Argentines even have a joke for it. “There are four types of countries in the world,” they lament. “First world. Third world. Japan, where nobody can figure out how they did so much with so little. And Argentina, where nobody can figure out how we did so little with so much.”

War, currency debasement, civil unrest, military rule and the catalyzing agent of political aspiration, harbored by the equally corrupt and inept, all conspired to stultify this once-proud nation’s potential. The great Argentine poet and essayist, Jorge Luis Borges, described one such retarding factor with characteristic flare and wit: “The Falklands thing was a fight between two bald men over a comb.”

On a comfortable Sunday afternoon in late February, an elderly group of well-dressed gentlemen met at their favorite restaurant, right by the gate to the Recoleta Cemetery, for lunch. They took a table outside, one in the shade and with a view of the passing foot traffic. The waiters, having brought the regulars the same thing, more or less, every Sunday for as long as they could remember, immediately set about filling their table. There was bife de lomo and chorizo sausages, mozzarella and buffalo tomatoes and papas fritas by the pile. Rich, Argentine Malbecs and Cabernets flowed freely and the merriment of the group soon became infectious. They flirted with the pretty waitresses and joked with patrons at the nearby tables.

After more than a few bottles, one of the gentlemen got chatting with an Australian editor of no particular importance.

“I am a judge here,” he eventually told the younger man. “My friends and I have seen it all in this city…riots, economic crises, war, people’s entire life savings wiped out overnight.”

One of his friends lent over and placed a knowing hand on the judge’s shoulder. “Today, we enjoy the moment,” he said to his lifelong friend, before adding, one long finger pointed over the cemetery wall, “because tomorrow…ha ha…well, you know our next stop old man.”

And the table erupted in laughter, as the sun set over the angel’s heads in the background.

Cheers,

Joel Bowman
Special to Financial Reserve

P.S. Joel’s message is often cryptographic. We left out the proper introduction to his essay because it overlaps our Wiggin Session conversation. We’ll tee up the full video tomorrow.

P.P.S. “It’s pretty obvious to me that you’re not the one taking shelter in an air-raid shelter,” a reader named Kazan responds to our piece, “No More for You.”

“Or put another way,” he jabs the blade in a little further, “you don’t seem capable of empathy.” Kanan goes on the explain “the principle being applied here”:

If someone acts badly, you don’t encourage them or support them by doing business with them, even if it may be inconvenient. This is what almost the whole world is doing because people are outraged, as they should be, by Putin’s behavior, in the same way we are all outraged by Hitler. By arguing that certain sanctions will not affect Putin you are missing the point.

We’re confident we understand the point. It’s part of the narrative being writ large. Ironically, or perhaps not so at all, Bill Bonner took up this very issue this morning:

The world wants to be deceived, so let it be deceived.The U.S. media is privately owned. But it acts an arm of the U.S. government… which is itself an arm of the Entire Elite Establishment (EEE, aka the “liberal world order.”)

No surprise. Reporters go to the same schools, read the same newspapers and believe the same things as Washington’s movers and shakers. They are not intentional propagandists; they just see the world in the same way. Never has this been clearer than reporting on the war between Russia and the Ukraine. The war in itself is nothing remarkable.

(We encourage you to continue reading Bill’s description of the West’s response to Putin’s advance here: “The Liberal World Order.”)

Our correspondent, Kanan, goes on to suggest we look at the classical definition of a sociopath. We assume he’s referring to Vladimir Putin.

“I hope this is helpful,” Kanan concludes, “no offense intended.”

To which we respond, “none taken, none offered.” We’re just as bumfuzzled as everyone.

Addison Wiggin

Addison Wiggin

Addison Wiggin is founder and executive publisher of Agora Financial LLC, an independent economic forecasting and financial research firm. He and Bill Bonner began writing the firm’s flagship Daily Reckoning in the midst of the tech boom and bust. It was one of the first widely distributed email newsletters on the Internet. The publication’s critical eye on finance and economics continues today. He’s also creator and editorial director of Agora Financial’s daily missive The 5 Min. Forecast.

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