Saturday, April 05, 2014

Luang Prabang, Laos

Main street in Luang Prabang
So there’s this other thing that I’ve been thinking about, traveling in a foreign country, and that is money.  Maybe it makes sense that it’s what I’d start to think about, traveling through one of the world’s twentieth poorest countries.  A country that is the most bombed per capita in the world.  By the United States of America, my own government, in a “secret war” against communists.  The one on which Apocalypse Now was really based.

Or maybe I’m thinking about money because at our guesthouse room in Nan the other day, on satellite television, played a very faithful movie adaptation of the Ayn Rand classic, Atlas Shrugged.  A book that I last read when I was in these latitudes.  A book that kept me from believing in the concept of love until I was 22.

If you don’t know Atlas Shrugged, consider that Ron Paul named his son Rand after its author.  It’s a paean to capitalism, an exaltation of self-involved greed as the highest good for society.  Here’s the speech that I flipped to the movie, on my all-English-movie satellite station:
‘Oh, so you think money is the root of all evil?  Have you ever asked yourself what’s the root of money?  Money’s a tool that allows us to trade with one another.  Your goods for mine.  Your efforts for mine.  The keystone of civilization.  Having money is not the measure of a man.  What matters is how he got it.  If he produced it by creating value, then his money is a token of honor.  But if he’s taken it from those who produce, then there is no honor, and you’re simply a looter…’
    ‘Señor D’Anconia, we all know that money is made by the strong at the expense of the weak.’
    ‘What kind of strength are you talking about?  The power to create value, or the ability to manipulate?  To extort money in backroom deals, to exercise pull?  When money ceases to be the tool by which men deal with one another, then men become the tools of men.  Blood, whips, chains, or dollars, take your choice.  There is no other.’
This speech entranced me, before I realized what movie it came from, exactly the way Atlas Shrugged entranced me 28 years ago.  It’s a beautiful idea, and true, I think.  If money is produced by creating value, then it is honorable, with no moral pollution.  In the speech, he’s speaking to crony capitalists and government flunkies—comparing them unfavorably to himself (the scion of a copper mining family) and another dude that mines coal.  They’re both good guys, escaping an evil communist empire.

The problem comes, of course, when one realizes that creating value does not equal looting land.  Why do all of these brilliant creators have so much land anyway?  How is it valuable to take stuff out from beneath the ground?  How did they get this land?  Who does land belong to?  Who does its resources belong to?

Who knows, in the fictional universe of Ayn Rand.  But here, on this earth, I know.  The land belonged to Indians, who didn’t believe that land could be owned.  The idea when the invaders managed to make it understood, was obscene to them.  They believed it belonged to everyone, that is was sacred.

“The Inuit language has no difference between he or she, or between mankind and animal,” she adds. “They’re all equal.” —American Nations, Colin Woodard

But the Indians were killed at rates of ninety percent, a mass extinction event.  A genocide.  Then us, their successors, systematically stripped the land, above and below, of all its “value.”  We turned the value into money.  We created nothing except waste.

Even today, the reason certain people own vast stretches of land is that their fathers were wealthy, and their great-grandfather before them.  That their families have been wealthy for so long that they had original land grants.  My family and my family's family are the inheritors of all of the wealth of the New World--all that fur and wood and coal.  It’s the reason that I can still afford to pay someone to clean my bathroom here, as I stay in guesthouse after guesthouse.  I watch the housemothers sweep the floor, and I think about somehow our histories being different, that this is the exchange of resources between us.

Laotians, according to sources in Luang Prabang, also have no word for mine and yours.  The words are the same.  They believe, shockingly, that everything in their land belongs to everyone.  It’s a communist country, still.  Ha!  The Randians say.  And see how little value they create!  See how poor they are!

And then we realize that no.  They’re poor because of ten years of illegal, illicit, secret, and relentless bombing by the United States of America.  They’re poor because of the following twenty years of futile embargoes.  They’re poor because of the refuse of colonialism. And still their land is being used by those with money—Chinese building massive smog-shrouded power plants that we drove by. 

Which brings me, of course, to climate change.  The last two brilliant Atlas Shrugged capitalists are a train builder and a metal smelter, who builds the high-tech rails for the train tracks.  The original screeners of the movie, for the American Heritage foundation, had as their major criticism that trains as an effective method of transportation are unrealistic.  Never mind that Hank Rearden (one of characters who could be designated an actual value creator) has invented an ultralight ultra-strong super-metal.  Never mind that gas costs $42 a gallon (as it should).  Never mind that we already have the technology for mag-lev TGV (ultra-high-speed) trains that go 400 mph with virtually no friction, no drag on the rails, and a fraction of the energy that it takes us to drive anywhere.

So the movie treats a coal-miner as a hero and gas at $42 as an outrage.  But then also treats scientists and inventors as saviors.  Never mind the irony of the brilliant scientist working in his public university lab, the sole genius creator, funded by government grants. But those who hold to Ayn Rand’s doctrine (Rand Paul, for one) refuse to believe what scientists are clearly saying, and refuse to listen to the inventions that could save us.  They refuse to use the free market and entrepreneurial spirit, the best tools at our disposal, to solve the problem they don’t even admit exists.

I don’t know to explain it clearly, without using incendiary propaganda myself.  I want it laid out stark.  Carbon dioxide is a waste product from burning things that contain carbon.  It is causing climate to change, in ways that could murder billions of people, in ways that could cause a mass-extinction event, in ways that endanger civilization.  A free market only works if people are asked to pay the true price for things.  It is crony capitalism if a certain producer, a certain company, or a class of companies, do not have to pay for the disposal of their own waste.  For the results of their waste.  If we do not have to pay the true cost for what it costs for us to burn carbon.

If one is able to dump lead in a river, or avoid the expense of a septic system by shitting on a neighbor’s front lawn, that is not a free market.  That is a system where manipulation, chiefly of people’s minds through doubt and misdirection, is in power.  Not liberty.  Not creators of value.  Not even the all-powerful market.

The book itself is seductive propaganda.  It’s so beautiful to believe in a world where all anyone has to do is make money, and the poor magically disappear, taking care of themselves.  It’s like believing in Santa Claus. 

I read Ayn Rand’s books, and I read my grandfather’s book, The Labor of Love, back to back.  His, by a Greek self-published exegete, analyzing the epistles of Paul.  Hers with their seductive vision of pure humanism, desire for money.

But the truth is that humans are much more complex.  Desire for money is simply a twentieth century concept.

I met a bitcoin capitalist in Chiang Mai, a libertarian, a defender of “liberty.”  A denier of climate change, who believes the whole thing exists to siphon money from poor to rich.  And it will do that.  Everything does that.  But that doesn’t mean it won’t happen anyway, unless someone, poor or rich, decides to do something, from the best power within them.  He doesn’t down the evil of Monsanto, though—not the GMO crops themselves, which are fine—but the things they can now spray them with.  But what should we do about it, if Monsanto has the liberty to spray what it will?  If doing otherwise would inhibit its brilliant capitalist entrepreneurialism?

Liberty has many definitions.  American Nations, a book I read last year, continues to haunt me, in its argument that
"from the very start the country was divided by the northern states’ Germanic idea of “Freiheit” and the southern states’ Latin idea of “libertas.”  "Essentially, Freiheit (“freedom”) holds that all people are born free and equal before the law, that they all possess at least certain minimal rights that have to be mutually respected, and that they are capable of self-governance.  Conversely, libertas (“liberty”) holds that people are born into bondage, that liberties are granted as a privilege, that most people are not capable of self-governance, and that only a very few, governing elite can or should enjoy the full blessings of liberty."  --Daily Kos
Another Colin Woodard find is this quote, from Virginian John Randolph decades after the American Revolution. “I am an aristocrat.  I love liberty; I hate equality.”

I keep thinking that what I am is a communitarian like the Yankees in American Nations, whose governments built schools, churches, community centers, courthouses, grange halls. As if living in a Massachusetts town, a Commonwealth, was a place where the wealth was common—where if something would benefit everyone, it’s cost should be shared.  They believed in collective good.  They wrote laws to protect us from other people, from them murdering or raping or torturing us.  Those laws stand today.

Simply put, one does not have “liberty” to dump someone’s garbage in a place where it does other people harm.  As Benjamin Franklin said, my freedom stops at the end of somebody else’s nose.  And murder can be more subtle, if it comes as an invisible gas.  The example I use is piles of shit on a sidewalk.  In an ideal Massachusetts town they’d build a sewage treatment plant, pool their resources to clean it up.  But what if the shit weren’t brown but invisible?  What if it were floating all around us in the air?

Andrew Guzman says:  
If you push on someone who doesn't want to take action on climate change, the place they end up, if they're reasonable people, is exactly the question: why should we spend money now to solve this problem, instead of either spending money later when we're going to be richer, assuming economic growth continues, or just living with it later? So there are a lot of answers to that. The answer the human being makes is that the economic gains from this pollution—which is what it is, the greenhouse gas that we're putting in the atmosphere—are falling to us. We're getting the benefits.

The economically well-understood principle is that the cost of the thing should be tied to its use. That is, we will get better allocation of resources if the person who uses a resource has to pay for it, for its full cost. In this case, including this pollution. That suggests that we should have to pay for it when we use it.
But even money isn’t the root of all evil, according to the Bible.  The love of money is.  That’s what gospel said.  That’s what Christ said.

Ayn Rand addresses this too, in her own work, not in the shortened screenplay speech:
Did you say it’s the love of money that’s the root of all evil? To love a thing is to know and love its nature. To love money is to know and love the fact that money is the creation of the best power within you, and your passkey to trade your effort for the effort of the best among men. It’s the person who would sell his soul for a nickel, who is loudest in proclaiming his hatred of money–and he has good reason to hate it. The lovers of money are willing to work for it. They know they are able to deserve it.
But I disagree.  I can love the best power within me without loving money.  My work comes from that best power inside of me no matter what our culture chooses to financially reward.  Never mind that even loving the best power within me, even love maybe, is a kind of desire.
There are two novels that can change a bookish fourteen-year old’s life: The Lord of the Rings and Atlas Shrugged. One is a childish fantasy that often engenders a lifelong obsession with its unbelievable heroes, leading to an emotionally stunted, socially crippled adulthood, unable to deal with the real world. The other, of course, involves orcs.  —John Rogers, Kung Fu Monkey
Or science tells us, in a recent Ted talk, that money as a motivational tool is a myth.  For factory work—repetitive, endless labor—money can work.  But for any kind of creativity monetary rewards actually depress performance.  And what are 21st-century problems if not problems that demand creativity?  Do these brilliant capitalists wanting us all to work from the “best power” within us want us to have factory jobs?  Or sweep floors?

Watch it if you don’t believe me.  Human beings aren’t driven by money after all.  We’re driven by autonomy, mastery, and purpose.  We do worse with a profit motive.

Dan Pink:  Puzzle of Motivation

“Blood, whips, chains, or dollars, take your choice.” said D’Anconia.  “There is no other.”  But of course there’s another choice.  There's love, as an operating principle.  Autonomy, mastery, and purpose—all kinds of love:  of self, craft, calling.

We stood at the mouth of a Buddha cave in Luang Prabang today.  I crept inside, alone.  I didn’t want to bring my (10,000 kip) coffee inside, in its plastic bag, so I waited till I could leave it outside with K. and headed in alone.  Ever the revenant I am but still there’s this feeling of terror in heading inwards alone, this sense of going into a sacred space, into the holy of holies.  It’s terrifying.

I wrote this in my journal when I passed my first temple on this trip, on Kho Phayam: I had that same feeling of power from the statues, or silence, or quietness, or peace, or brooding strength--the feeling that made me panic as a teenager.  It's odd and unexpected.

But I can write about it now on a computer worth a piece of land in Laos.  This is one of the twentieth poorest countries in the world.  And still to hike to the top of the mountain cost us 20,000 kip.  And then there’s the amount of how much food costs, and how much my daily income corresponds to a person here and a person can go crazy.  Our water budget here is insane.  How much to just keep myself in water.

Still I feel poor here.  I am poor here.  Laos is bleeding us dry.

Buddha teaches us about money in that he teaches about suffering.  Do not desire money, is what he would say, as you should grasp after nothing.

The gatekeepers at the temple give us evil eyes to make sure we pay our $3.  At the top of the mountain is a simple stupa.  We go down into white-hot heat and dust.

What Buddha said doesn’t seem enough to me.  It’s not enough to desire nothing. I also need the Holy Ghost inside me.  Meditation and mindfulness are good for focusing on where the Holy Ghost needs me to be.  Yoga helps too.   My father preached a sermon in Maecherim about Jacob meeting the angel and wrestling him, about wrestling with that Spirit for your own name, for your own answers.  Money does not help me in that fight.  Nor does desire. 

I love money.  Help thou my love of money.  I try not to love money, but I do.  And I try not to desire, as Gautama taught, anything other than what is.  Lord I believe.  Help thou my unbelief.

I remember the prayer given to me every time I take the rail at St. Anne’s in Mars Hill:  This is my body, given for you.  I begin to take that literally.  This body, that I’m living in, is His body.  It’s given for me, my self.  A gift.

As is grace, as is forgiveness, as impossible as I find it to live inside of that place.  I love him, I love my partner, I love my self, and I love this broken world, and I try to make my way around it in love.  I love the life I’m living through.  Can’t I love it more than money?

Even today, though, the guy glares at us as he sweeps our room.  He’s the teenaged son, sent upstairs by his mother, in a spotless starched shirt and carefully ripped jeans.  He has to sweep our room of my hair, the room we stayed in for a week.  Somehow I have exchanged my money for this service, the ability to have him clean up for me.  I exchange the result of my best labor for his, and I hope he can work from the best power within him, too.

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