Contrary to popular belief, there is real advantage to having only a few entertainment and shopping options. Unless you’ve just inherited a bunch of money and are in a hurry to spend it all before you die, most of us would be better off shopping less, and spending fewer hours being “entertained,” whatever that means. The very fact that so much money and effort is spent to convince us otherwise should be a clue to who stands to benefit from the transaction.

Likewise, most dietary problems could be solved by following a simple rule: never eat anything that you see advertised. Products that have their own television commercials are bound to be vastly over-priced and lacking in substance. If you took the contents of a typical supermarket and distilled them down to their essences, you’d end up with a lake of corn sweeteners, various piles of chemical additives, a mound of wheat, soy and cornstarch, and an enormous pile of colorfully printed cardboard.

Just as good foods often lack glossy packaging, there are plenty of places on this planet that do not show up as tourist destinations, and yet offer a quality of life that exceeds most that do. The people who live in such places are happier than the norm. These content and reasonably satisfied people are not newsworthy enough to attract the attention of real estate speculators, developers, tourism agencies or Internet travel sites. In many of these places it’s possible to live on much less than it would take to live in the “developed” world.

How can you tell if a people are happy? They laugh a lot. They are affectionate with children. They enjoy each other’s company.

I spent twelve years living in San Francisco, a lovely though terribly expensive place. The Zodiac killer had just ended his reign of terror, though there was a guy named Charles Ng who was kidnapping, torturing and killing people in the nearby Sierras. Within a year or two another guy would be stalking and killing hikers on Mount Tamalpais. I took many hikes there at that time, and found I was the only person on the path.

One day, while reading the San Francisco Chronicle, as was my daily habit, I read of a man who like me had recently gotten divorced, and had custody of his thirteen year old son. The two of them lived in a grand house on a big spread somewhere in the exclusive hills of Marin County. What got my attention was the fact that the son had murdered his father. So even though he had alarms on the doors, and video cameras monitoring the front gate, what did him in was his own offspring. Crazy. That got my attention. I thought to myself “whatever this guy had, I don’t want it. In fact, get me outta here!”

I have just spent a few days in Mendoza, a medium-sized city in the foothills of the Andes. Mendoza doesn’t get a lot of press. You can’t find it mentioned much on TripAdvisor, or Lonely Planet, nor do the hucksters at International Living hype its charms. After hanging out in cafes and parks, and generally wandering around without purpose, I have come to conclusion that it would be a nice place to call home. My only concern is the stability of the government and economy.

Why isn’t Argentina one of the richest countries in the world? It certainly has the resources. For the last week I’ve been riding busses covering only about half the nation’s land area, and can vouch both for the quality of their highways and the existence of millions of acres of golden soybeans ready for harvest and plenty of tall corn. Compared to neighbors Bolivia and Paraguay, Argentina boasts a relatively educated populace. It’s certainly not over-crowded. You’d think they would enjoy security and liberty, but they seem to lack the ability to govern themselves.  They elect fools and scoundrels, lie to themselves and others and then believe those lies right up to the point that everything collapses and they have to pick up the pieces and start over again from scratch.

There’s a joke: Argentinians are people who speak Spanish, live in French houses, eat Italian food, and think they’re English.

A few days ago, I passed through the Plaza San Martin in Cordoba, the main square in the nation’s second largest city. The National Bank occupies one side of the square. There were lines of people stretching around the corner in both directions streaming from the front door, waiting patiently for hours for the chance to collect their pension or withdraw some portion of their savings. An armored vehicle was parked in front, and soldiers with weapons stood guarding the entrance. It looked like everyone’s idea of a fiscal emergency, but this economic nightmare was just business as usual here in Argentina, where people have little confidence in their economy or rulers, and plenty of historical justification for feeling that way. One night about ten years ago, the government decided to devalue the currency, and within a few weeks everyone had lost two-thirds of their wealth. Of course, the politicians knew in advance that this was coming, and had already squirreled their cash away to offshore banks.

At that time, the country defaulted on its loans and some creditors who declined to accept ten cents on the dollar are still demanding their money back.

Fortunately, Argentina has had good luck rebuilding their economy without outside help, but one gets the impression they learned nothing from their collapse, and that the next one will arise from the same mixture of arrogance and deceit that caused the first. In 2002, I saw a blonde, blue-eyed woman holding her infant child and begging in front of a Buenos Aires subway station. For most of this white boy’s experience, poor people were dark-skinned, but it was then that I realized when white people have the rug pulled out from under them, they get hungry, too. It gave me pause.

Here, in the southern part of South America, they’re still working at getting over the horrible abuse of power they suffered during the Military Dictatorships of the seventies. Then, Argentine military aircraft routinely dumped bodies into the delta region just north of the capital. Twenty to thirty thousand people simply disappeared. Even schoolchildren who had been protesting an increase in the price of their school lunch were rounded up, tortured and executed. As the Phillipines and even Thailand found out at roughly the same time Argentina and Chile did, once you let the military start killing communists, pretty soon everybody looks like a communist.

Hopefully that sort of thing is permanently behind Argentina, but as poor people all over the world know, when you’ve got nothing to lose, it’s not that big a leap to resort to drastic measures. The social fabric could tear again. And if the military ever takes power, it’s time to head to the airport.



  1. “One night about ten years ago, the government decided to devalue the currency, and within a few weeks everyone had lost two thirds of their wealth. Of course, the politicians knew in advance that this was coming, and had squirreled their cash away to offshore banks.” Didn’t that happen in US in 2007? Have you read “Shock Doctrine”?

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