When you're out of the country, as I was last week, it's good to know that the home folks are keeping up with the Kardashians and bravely venturing into the blood-splattered chambers of cable TV's latest hit, Bridal Plasty - where candidates for marriage are transformed from Holstein cows into inflatable sex toys by magic surgical technology - not to mention all those humble guardians of freedom who kept the parking lots of WalMart safe for consumerism in the wee small hours of Black Friday. These are, after all, perilous times.
Elsewhere, Ireland and the rest of Europe wore themselves out with soul-searching all week over how to handle national bankruptcy within a currency system that bears only a schematic relation to reality. Does the bankruptee go broke all at once, or is she recruited into permanent debt slavery so that the bond-holders of various banks can keep their loved ones in marzipan and Fauchon's wonderful marrons glacés for one more holiday season? As of Monday morning, Ireland has been commanded to, er, bend over and pick up the soap, shall we say, for about a hundred billion euros in loans that will not be paid back until a mile-high ice-sheet covers Dublin (something that might happen sooner rather than later if the climate mavens are right).
We'll see how this bail-out goes down with the French and German voters, too, who have to pay for it, after all, especially as Portugal, Spain, and Italy line up at the cash cage for their cheques (and bars of soap). Of course, a few more basis points in the interest rate spreads could prang the whole Euro soap opera - does anybody really believe this game of kick-the-can will go on after New Years? I'm not even sure it goes on past this Friday, but I am a notoriously nervous fellow.
Meanwhile, I happened to turn on CNN in my hotel room way out in Western Australia to see that Kim Jong-un, 25-year-old heir presumptive to North Korea's ailing Dear Leader Kim Jong-il, was looking to start World War Three. I guess that would show everybody who's boss now, though one wonders why the Chinese don't send someone to Pyongyang to club the young prankster upside his head. I mean, what's in it for China if the world goes up in flames? There will be that many fewer customers for battery-operated plastic zombies and their renowned salad shooters.
I rather enjoyed my time in Perth, the city comfortably most far removed from any other major population center on Earth. So I figured if a nuke or two got loose up in Korea, I'd end up like Gregory Peck in On the Beach - in a city of fabulous beaches! In fact, the villas along the Indian Ocean coast there reminded you of Malibu circa 1958, before we turned all of Southern California into a shrine to the goddess of free parking.
It was late spring down in Perth. The sun was glaring down through that hole in the ozone, and metallic Christmas trees materialized in the hotel lobby a few mere meters from real palmettos where parrots roosted. The locals all complained to me about the inadequacy of their public transit, but at least they had public transit, and it seemed to work pretty darn well to me. I took the fast and silent light rail car from the jive-plastic casino / convention center / hotel complex where I stayed, built on a reclaimed landfill ("rubbish tip," they say down there) along the River Swan, a few kilometers down the line to a charming and immaculate central light rail station at the center of Perth.
This city center had two major shopping streets where cars were kept out, and several bistro-lined alleys and arcades cut laterally through the blocks, all jammed with people and lined by local retail establishments not affiliated with the giant chain stores that have, in contrast, turned commerce in America into a catatonic monoculture of mindless bargain-seeking. I don't exaggerate when I say that there was more action in this modest precinct of Perth than in all of Cleveland, Detroit, Milwaukee, St. Louis, Kansas City, and Baltimore put together. The sad state of the urban scene back home really struck me there.
It was reinforced when I ventured about seven klicks down the light rail line to the neighborhood of Freemantle, once a separate port city where the River Swan meets the ocean, but now more of a neighborhood of expanding Perth. Free-o, as they call it, had several intersecting shopping streets of its own, jammed with people at three in the afternoon, including schoolchildren in natty uniforms, and definitely had more going on in a few blocks than all the pathetic old downtowns of Albany, Schenectady, Utica, Syracuse, Rochester, and Buffalo combined.
Western Australia is thriving these days as China's ore pit. They can't sell enough iron, copper, nickel, and other hard stuff to the economic 900-pound gorilla to the north. These riches have jacked the Australian dollar nearly to par with the $US, and provoked a housing bubble that looks outwardly every bit as dicey as the ones that already blew up at home, not to mention Ireland and Spain. Heavy equipment operators commute weekly hundreds of miles from the mining fields to Perth, where they spend freely on boats, flash cars, and other toys, and take out giant mortgages. The region seems to exist in a delirium of riches for the moment, and I had to wonder what would happen there if the Euro crapped out, and the global banking system seized up and letters-of-credit for moving ore shipments became harder to get.
A few Australians seemed nervous about it, too. Their cities back east - Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane - were not enjoying quite the same profit bonanza as the Perthies (or Perthtonians, or Perthtarians, or whatever they call themselves) are doing. The ten-year-long drought that has hammered the country -temporarily relieved this austral spring back east, but still going strong in Perth - is a scary problem in a region that has always been rather dry. Farmers in the old wheat belt outside Perth are shutting down their operations in despair, and they used to export a lot of food to the Middle East and China, so folks in these faraway places will feel Australia's pain. Perth officials blandly expect the city to keep expanding (a lot!) but they are already resorting to expensive de-salinization plants for drinking water. Anyway, I'm suspicious that this monkey business in Korea lately is only the beginning of a set of disorders that will afflict the Asian division of the global economy, while Europe struggles with whatever money turns out to be for them, and poor old America drowns in unpayable debts - and perhaps turns politically psychotic in response.
I rather expect the eco-ayatollahs to take a dim view of all my travels lately. But, hey, the planes were going to leave whether I was on them or not. And I was glad to see a far-off corner of the world that many civilians will never get to. So bugger off. Finally, it was no small irony, given all that was going on in the world last week, to be in the home territory of the now-famous black swan. This one's for you, Nassim Nicholas Taleb!