Back to Reality

Do we have a faraway look in our eyes? Do we seem “spacey”…perhaps a little “out of it?”

Maybe so.

Up in the high Andes sensations hit you hard, like an adobe brick. Now we are feeling a little letdown. A few days ago we had the hot sun beating down on us. Now, we are back to the dim light of a computer screen. A few days ago, we rose before dawn in order to ride 8 hours on horseback to visit ancient Indian ruins…crossing streams…breaching mountain passes…discovering hidden Shangri-La valleys. Now, we cross the street to buy a café latte and settle into our comfy desk chair.

We have come back from our sabbatical. Older, certainly. Tanner and leaner? Yes. Wiser? Probably not. But surely distracted. The smell of the sage is still fresh in our nostrils. The weight of the big adobe bricks…the open fires and juicy meat…grapes on the vine, nuts on the trees, flies on the open wounds…the smoky kitchens…and Gone With the Wind sunsets — it is all still so vivid. So real. So unlike the latest GDP or CPI statistics!

What part of it will we tell you about? What would you like to know? How can we make sense of it?

Why would a 63-year-old man, who has spent his entire career in front of a keyboard, at sea level, take a retreat to 8,000 feet and spend 10 hours a day doing hard work with a team of leathery gauchos? Why would he build a house of sunbaked bricks and chiseled stones, a house he didn’t need, using Roman-era construction techniques? Why didn’t his wife or children stop him?

Some of these questions we cannot answer. We have struggled to make sense of them. Perhaps they have no answer, other than…“it seemed like a good idea at the time.”

So, all we can do is to tell the story…but which story?

…of how he got caught in a flash flood and had to beach his pick-up truck on the rocks?

…or how he met an eccentric European aristocrat who bought 30,000 acres of Argentine farmland for $250,000?

…or how he and a Dear Reader took of their pants and waded across the Calchaqui River in broad daylight?

…or how this same Daily Reckoning reader ended up in possession of the only castle in Northern Argentina…

…or how Elizabeth rode 12 hours on horseback to a hidden mountain valley in order to give Holy Communion to a 95-year-old blind woman…and discovered the Inca’s “natural Viagra”?

And where to begin?

Oh yes, let’s begin with a little economic update. The former head of Argentina’s central bank had a run-in with the elected government. The politicians insisted on using the bank’s financial reserves — that is, the nation’s vital foreign currency reserves — in order to pay its debts. The banker, to his credit, refused…and was fired in February 2010. He was replaced with a banker cast more in the mold of Ben Bernanke or Mario Draghi. That is, a more modern, pliable, flexible banker — a scoundrel, in other words.

The new head of the Argentine central bank recently asserted that there was “no correlation” between money-printing and inflation. That’s the kind of man we want at the head of a central. Not some namby, pamby economist who beats around the bush, talks out of both sides of his mouth, obfuscates and confuses…not a guy whom you never know when you can believe him or not. No, we want a guy we can trust…who is a 100%, four-square fool. Then, we know when he is talking nonsense — whenever his lips are moving!

That’s what’s nice about Argentina. You know where you stand. You know the politicians are crooked and the bureaucrats are incompetent, if not completely mad. You know you have to find a way around them…a way to dodge their rules…a way to protect yourself. You know the government’s figures are lies and its promises are empty. You know what to do with its currency too — try to get rid of it at the earliest opportunity.

That’s why the federales in Argentina have new dogs on the job at the international airports. They’re not trying to stop people from bringing in weapons or contraband. They’re trying to stop people from taking out dollars!

Yes, dear reader, the papers tell us that the Argentines have trained dogs to sniff out dollars — striking fear in the hearts of those who would try to convert their pesos to dollars and take them where they might be safe.

Meanwhile, the Kirchner government has announced the forced nationalization of the nation’s biggest oil company — YPF. Naturally. The government said it was unhappy with the way the owners were (not) investing in new development. So, they’re taking the company into their own hands — as if the penniless pampa feds will invest more!

What better way to convince foreign investors NOT to invest their money in Argentina; take away their assets. Heck, it worked for Cuba and Venezuela.

Seems transparently nutty. But that’s what’s so good about it. You know what is going on in Argentina. You know for a dead certainty that the government is corrupt and incompetent. And you know you have to watch out!

Fortunately, while the Argentines close doors publicly, they leave doors open privately. That is, it is a society like Sicily, where there are laws…and there are ways around them.

We were worried about the effects of another stupid law passed recently by the Argentine government. It prevents foreigners from owning large parcels of farmland. Since your editor owns two large parcels…and since even a blind, deaf and dumb man could not mistake him for an authentic Argentine…he would seem to be the very person the law is meant to restrain. So, we put the question to our lawyer.

“Yes,” he said. “That’s what the law says. But this is Argentina.”

We do not always draw the correct meaning…or the full meaning…from someone speaking in Spanish. But we think we know what he had in mind.

Yes, a law was passed by the central assembly, apparently aimed at stopping foreign landowners from accumulating substantial holdings. But, no, there was nothing to worry about. For there is a wide river between passing a law and implementing it…and often, in the far northwest of the country, the river can’t be crossed.

“In 200 years of foreign property owners, Argentina has never expropriated land,” he went on.

“Yes, but it just expropriated an oil company…”

“Well, this is Argentina…”

We love Argentina. It is so quirky…whacky…and out-of-control. For example, it has recently banned the importation of foreign books. Why? It says it can’t be sure the ink used in foreign books meets its lead standards. What next? We can’t wait to see….

But our adventures in the northwest were of an entirely different quality. There, we were not confronted by a nutty government or a Three Stooges bureaucracy. No, up there…nature…and human nature…rule. They are magnificent. They are hard. They are sweet and indomitable. More to come…

Yesterday, before getting on a plane for Miami, we stopped in at Montevideo, Uruguay. We wanted to find out more about what was going on. Uruguay is a banking haven and used to welcome foreigners and ask few questions. Now, it insists on following roughly the same rules as every other country. You can still move to Uruguay. But you need to follow the rules…carefully.

“I guess that means you have fewer foreigners coming in,” we suggested to an immigration lawyer.

“Not at all. We’ve never had so many.”

“Where are they coming from?”

“Europe…and America.”


“They say they just want to be safe. They think Europe and America are going to go broke and have serious social problems. We don’t have those kinds of problems in Uruguay. Our banks are solid. There is not a lot of debt. And we’re a long way from either Europe or America. People come here. They like our relaxed, safe lifestyle. They buy a farm in the country or an apartment on the ocean. They feel like they have some place to go if things go bad in their home countries.”

An article in the US press confirmed that the US is no longer a magnet for immigrants. Net illegal immigration into the US (netted out against those who go home) is now zero.

And now The New York Times reports that children of immigrants are going home:

In growing numbers, experts say, highly educated children of immigrants to the United States are uprooting themselves and moving to their ancestral countries. They are embracing homelands that their parents once spurned but that are now economic powers.

Enterprising Americans have always sought opportunities abroad. But this new wave underscores the evolving nature of global migration, and the challenges to American economic supremacy and competitiveness.

In interviews, many of these Americans said they did not know how long they would live abroad; some said it was possible that they would remain expatriates for many years, if not for the rest of their lives.

Their decisions to leave have, in many cases, troubled their immigrant parents. Yet most said they had been pushed by the dismal hiring climate in the United States or pulled by prospects abroad.

“Markets are opening; people are coming up with ideas every day; there’s so much opportunity to mold and create,” said Mr. Kapadia, now a researcher at Gateway House, a new foreign-policy research organization in Mumbai. “People here are running much faster than the people in Washington.”

For generations, the world’s less-developed countries have suffered so-called brain drain — the flight of many of their best and brightest to the West. That has not stopped, but now a reverse flow has begun, particularly to countries like China and India and, to a lesser extent, Brazil and Russia.

Some scholars and business leaders contend that this emigration does not necessarily bode ill for the United States. They say young entrepreneurs and highly educated professionals sow American knowledge and skills abroad. At the same time, these workers acquire experience overseas and build networks that they can carry back to the United States or elsewhere — a pattern known as “brain circulation.”

Officials in India said they had seen a sharp increase in the arrival of people of Indian descent in recent years — including at least 100,000 in 2010 alone, said Alwyn Didar Singh, a former senior official at the Ministry of Overseas Indian Affairs.

Many of these Americans have been able to leverage family networks, language skills and cultural knowledge gleaned from growing up in immigrant households.

For many of these émigrés, the decision to relocate has confounded — and even angered — their immigrant parents.

When Jason Y. Lee, who was born in Taiwan and raised in the United States, told his parents during college that he wanted to visit Hong Kong, his father refused to pay for the plane ticket.

“His mind-set was, ‘I worked so hard to bring you to America and now you want to go back to China?’ ” recalled Mr. Lee, 29.

Since then, Mr. Lee has started an import-export business between the United States and China; studied in Shanghai; worked for investment banks in New York and Singapore; and created an international job-search Web site in India. He works for an investment firm in Singapore. His father’s opposition has softened.


Bill Bonner
for The Daily Reckoning

The Daily Reckoning