Tuesday, March 12, 2013

when it rains

[animated .gif - maybe click on it if it's not moving]
Every time it rains I'm like

my attempt to imitate the great

Saturday, March 9, 2013


The latest episode of Planet Money, Business Secrets of the Amish,  is fascinating. They start to go into a lot of important underlying issues that are almost never analyzed or even acknowledged in public discussions of economics like: the power of real communities, the role of technology in assessing one's standard of living, the relativity of wealth and well-being, the ambiguous benefits of cars, phones, etc., the relative value of labor in a world of mass production, the implications of mass production for craftsmen, the joy of inventing things  vs. buying cheap consumer goods, among others.

I frequently think about these kinds of issues as I try to put my life in Paraguay in the context of the 21st century global capitalist economy. So much of the way I live here is strikingly different from the way people live in the states just because of the lower price of labor and relatively higher price of material inputs and industrially manufactured goods. Private vehicles, paved roads, supermarkets, telephone lines, instant meals, suburban sprawl, printer cartridges, industrial scale farms and cattle feed-lots are all less common in Paraguay than in the USA because they are relatively more expensive. Bus lines, cobblestoned roads, "corner" stores, food made from scratch, street vendors, shoe-shiners, dense development, and small-scale family farms and livestock grazing are all relatively more common in Paraguay than the USA because the labor involved and the locally-produced inputs are worth relatively less monetarily.  Some highly-useful or desirable technology items are also common such as cell phones, motorcycles, well pumps, electric fans, televisions, and hot pots, because these items justify their high cost (relative to their cost in the USA) .

The value of strong community organization is also quite visible here. The Amish in the Planet Money episode are historically linked with the Mennonites, several groups of which arrived in Paraguay in the early 20th century. The Mennonites (and a couple other Anabaptist groups) arrived in material poverty, many of them fleeing Stalin's USSR, and settled in some of the least hospitable parts of the country. Nonetheless, with their superior community organizational skills and dedication to labor the Mennonite communities in Paraguay are today among the most prosperous in Paraguay. Other "colonies" founded by Japanese and German immigrants throughout the country have similarly prospered.

These communities benefited from cultures that highly value cooperation and strong community organization. Though they have farmed the same lands as native Paraguayans they've managed to prosper while the rest of Paraguay has only stumblingly advanced economically during the last century. I have really come to appreciate how fundamental culture is to humans; how deeply and irrevocably it molds us and how durable it is through the centuries.
{The Penguin History of the World by J.M. Roberts (Penguin the publishing house, not the bird) stressed this point quite a bit. This article about family structure in Europe also illuminates the subtle durability of cultural norms.}

The national Paraguayan culture is essentially composed of the highly formalistic, bureaucratic, and aristocratic culture of the Spanish Empire on top of the loosely organized personal and family-centered culture of the Guarani. The result is a culture which regards official organizations with a certain cynical ceremony, paying homage to formal systems but only putting real trust and investment in personal and familial relationships.

Before I came to Paraguay I imagined shedding my American cultural norms during Peace Corps and slipping into an idealized version of traditional life. I intentionally did not bring a computer or music played because I intended to replace my American cultural consumption with Paraguayan equivalents. Very quickly I realized how deeply ingrained American-ness is in my being, how much the things I like are American things and how alien I find most of what Paraguayans like. The efforts I have made to adopt Paraguayan attitudes and tastes have been valuable and I would benefit from trying to do more, but I'm now somewhat resigned about that project. I will never be Paraguayan and I'm fine with that. I am proud of my American-ness and of American culture even as I'm happy to criticize it and be careful not to impose it (that much) on others.