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Saturday, July 12, 2003 - 07:46 AM Permanent link for Adventure Capitalist
Adventure Capitalist

Biz trips.   Biz trips.  Biz trips.   If not for the business trips, I doubt I'd be anywhere as well read as I am (or at least claim to be).   This time around, it's my now sort-of-standard London-Paris-Stockholm troika and the book was Adventure Capitalist by Jim Rogers.

AC is a bit lighter fair than most of the books I've reviewed over time in the blog - it doesn't purport to be a serious academic thesis or comprehensive inquiry.   Instead, it's Jim Rogers' travelogue documenting his 152,000 mile road trip around the world with his wife / fiance and liberally peppered with emotional / personal topics on Jim's mind (for ex., the death of his father while on the trip).   AC is a sequel to a previous well-selling book titled "Investment Biker" Rogers wrote about a similar around-the-world trip on a motorcycle.

I was surprised by how much I enjoyed the book and strongly recommend it.   It's a fun read while still being quite educational - a sort of cross between Cosmo/Vogue and Cliffs Notes but for International Affairs minded.

I became acquainted with Rogers back in the early / mid 90's when he, with his signature bow ties, was a VERY frequent comentator on CNBC (back when it was called FNN and before Neil Cavuto made the leap to FoxNews).  As a college student, I was pretty impressed with his wit and powers of observation all from a decidedly libertarian-esque perspective.   He was just as keen to launch a tirade against Democratic policies as Republican-ones and was one of the few commentators on the national TV networks to so strongly espouse classical liberal themes.  This knowledge + a few casual references I've read in the web propelled me to pick up AC in a London Bookstore on Oxford Street.

Rogers' political / economic philosophy provides the common thread that holds the book together.   Rogers tours 116 countries with a capitalist-eye-view of what makes their cultures, economies and governments tick.   This intersection has been a long term interest of mine over the years and Rogers delivers handsomely.   His approach is rather simply laid out [p 4]

While I have never patronized a prostitute, I know that one can learn more about a country from speaking to the madam of a brothel or a black marketeer than from spekaing to a goernment minister.   There is nothing like crossing outlying borders for gaining insights into a country.

Most of the book consists of a paragraph or 2 of his sights in a given country padded with a few more paragraphs providing a history lesson and/or snapshot of the nation's current health.   There's definitely enough material in here to give you a taste of just how nuanced the differences are between the different nations of Africa, for example.   However -- and I can't entirely fault him here -- a felt a few of his theories needed to be taken with a grain or two of salt.   Anecdotal evidence is great for flavor but I fear he occasionally makes some sweeping cultural observations without enough data to back it up...

Being a good classical liberal, Rogers doesn't fail in delivering diatribes against the socialist-esque international bodies -- particularly NGO Aid organizations.   This passage, for example, describes the NGO employees he meets in his nearly 1 year drive through Africa and Central Asia [p 44]:

...when I meet people like these, I think of characters like Lord Jim, who cannot really make it back home.   They always find it easier to go work for the government and to move to places like this [Central Asia] they do not have to run quite so hard or think quite so fast.   They all have big offices, they all go to restaurants whenever they want, they live much better than they could in the states -- they live like kings -- and they have a rationale for everything.   They will explain to you that they really have to have drivers to avoid problems with the police...

...Programs like theirs are an utter disaster, money thrown out the window, all in the name (and out of the utter arrogance) of teaching these countries capitalism.   The people who do their work, expatriates all... they love life, would not dream of doing anything else...

The NGO's and aid agencies, Rogers contends, are becoming the new appartchiks of the peculiar socialism of Transnational Progressivism.  They may honestly believe they are performing a useful function but the net result is readily identifiable in our coldwar history books.   Another example [p 189]:

...Africans call them the new colonialists.  They act the same way.   The look upon the countries the same way.   They know more than the locals know, and they have better money than the locals.  At least the colonialists had to answer to someone.   These people have to answer to nobody.   They live in compounds with guards and gates and satellite TVs, and they drive around the country telling poor locals how dumb they are...

Similar to the issues created by the NGO organizations, Rogers lives up to his "on the street reporting" promise by describing the impact of other forms of Western charity on local economies - in this case, an anecdote from Ethiopia and free food [p 203]:

Massive amounts of aid in the form fo free food have been  going to Ethiopia since famine was first reported in the Western press, and we were in Lalibela the day one of the monthly shipments arrived.   ... The poorer you are, the more food you get, and no one wanted to show off his possessions, so everyone parked his donkeys about 3 km from town and walked the rest of the way

...While this was going on, glorious, lush fields all around Lalibela lay fallow because nobody farmed them anymore.   An entire generation of  Ethiopians has grown up without learning how to farm.   Instead, to put food on the table, they go to town every month, park the donkey , and collect grain. addition to that generation that has never learned how to farm, there is a generation of farmers who have simply stopped farming because they can no longer see the fruits of their labor -- there is no way to compete with free grain.

Perhaps even more disturbing, he describes the outright fraud being waged against Western charities by unscrupulous middle men who take donated clothing + physical objects and sell them at submarket prices to the intended destination country [p 204]:

... the traffic in charitable goods, which I first became aware of on my motorcycle trip [10 yrs ago], has been one of the great growth industries of the last decade.   The fortunes to be made have spawned an army of middle men who, for no more than the price of going to church -- a little money in the collection plate -- procure boatloads of free inventory by visiting do-good roganizations in the United states.  

... of course, if we were to allow tailors in Africa to stay in business, if we were to help them become productive and self-sufficient, we might find ourselves importing the goods they produce.    Better to give them shirts and put them out of business so we can give them more shirts than to threaten the job of a textile working in North Carolina.

Despite these excerpts, Rogers does see some extraordinary activity and the proper confluence of culture + government + economic soundness coming together in several regions.   He's particularly impressed by activity in China and some regions in Africa (particularly Ghana) and South America (particularly Chile). 

An economic snapshot of the world in 200 pages.   And entertaining to boot.  Not too shabby.

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