I once was on a business trip to La Paz, Bolivia. This remarkable Andean country is maybe the most unique in the Americas. The city of La Paz was built upon a crevice in the Andes Mountains that climbs for 1000 feet to level out upon the Altiplano – an immense bowl nestled at 14,000 feet (the same altitude as Pike’s Peak) and surrounded by imposing mountains of 22,000 feet and higher. It is a stark plain, of muted browns and beiges – home to llamas and alpacas and the poverty of the Aymara and Quechua, descendants of the Incas. The valley extends from La Paz for a hundred kilometers north to the fabled Lake Titicaca: of ancient legend and mystery. That vast plain hosts the ruins of a 2000 year old civilization (called Tiwanaku), which rivaled the city of Rome. Gold, monumental architecture, music and tradition, stratified society and the most productive agricultural land in the history of the world. An epic civilization built upon trade – roads that channeled the flow of goods from the top of the continent, sweltering in tropical Caribbean sunlight, to the extensive bogs at the southernmost reaches of the Amazon forest.
While there, I had the occasion to talk to a taxi driver as I was headed to a certain place or someplace else. “How are things here?” I asked. “Oh, things are not going well,” he told me – as all cab drivers are wont to do. “The economy is bad. We are not self-sufficient, we import too much of what we need.” I expected him to start complaining about Chile – the feud between those two neighboring countries is legendary. “No, sir,” he said. “Those people down in Cochabamba are always taking advantage – we need to free ourselves from them.” Cochabamba is of course one of the lowland states of Bolivia.
I was taken aback; because this is not something I often consider. When I visit the supermarket, it doesn’t cause me angst that the roses I buy my wife on Valentine’s Day are grown in the vast fields outside of Phoenix. I do not fret that the cheese on my burrito is from Wisconsin. Nor do I lose sleep over the fact that the pineapples on my ice cream are grown on the gentle slopes of volcanoes in Hawaii.
Free trade between the states is accepted – normal – understood; and brings immense prosperity (unless you’re in the health care industry, in which case its unfree – the result being inflation. But I digress).
Which made me think, why then should it matter whether those same roses are from Phoenix, or from Mexico, or from Chile? Who cares whether the rice in my casserole is from Louisiana or from Vietnam? Does it matter whether the computer I am writing on is from Silicon Valley or from China?
Of course it doesn’t. At least not to me. Because the decisions of what I purchase are practical. I, as a consumer, am always making choices based upon what is in my interest. The nexus between price and quality. What do I need? How much can I afford? Those are the most important questions. Do I find satisfaction in a pair of underwear from Colombia, instead of one from Wilmington? And if it’s cheaper, isn’t that even better for me – because won’t I have more money to spend on something else? And won’t that competition force the Wilmington underwear makers to improve, to reduce price, or increase quality? Might that not lead to deflation (which is a good thing – don’t tell the FED)? And won’t that lead to more money flowing into other parts of the economy, stimulating business in sectors that the planners cannot foresee – or even, dare I say it, saved to buttress our banks? Put simply by a friend of mine whenever the Walmart activists take to the streets, “What do so many have against poor people keeping more of their money?”
Back in Bolivia, as I drove along through the ruins of a place that once had been epic, I wondered what had become of the greatest power in the west. What had happened, that had left a poor cab driver worrying about whether his beans had been grown in another state instead of by a neighbor? I wondered what too this means for us? And I worry, lest our politicians succeed – and we become consumed with the concern that a hot dog we are eating comes from New York, and we lose our civilization in the process.