Animal Farm, Senor

By Brad Thomason, CPA


Back to school time is here again.  Leading into the new school year, my oldest son had one of my favorite books on his summer reading list:  Animal Farm, George Orwell’s satirical work about the rise of Communism in Russia.

Not knowing how much world history he has had to this point (he’s a 9th grader this year), I suggested to my son that he might want to read the Wikipedia pages for Karl Marx, the Bolshevik Revolution and Joseph Stalin before reading the book.  He did so, and said it helped.  I figured I better take a spin through those items too in case he had any questions.  Doing so reminded me of a few things I had forgotten.

George Orwell specifically wrote the book as a means of expressing his opinion that Communism was wholly unworkable.  History of course has now supported his view, more or less in totality.  But despite the fact that he wrote the book for that specific purpose, I have always taken a different message from Animal Farm.  I would sum it up this way:  When one group wants what another group has, they will become more like the first group as they pursue the goal and get closer to getting it.  To me, this principle has always been a fundamental component in explaining what we have seen with globalization, and especially the Americanization of other countries around the world.

A timely coincidence came last week, in the form of a trip to Mexico.  The last time I was in Mexico was over 20 years ago, so to say that it is not part of my normal travel path would be an understatement.  But they were apparently having some trouble with the tarpon population (i.e. more fish than fisherman).  So what could a neighborly guy like myself do but load up his flyrods and head down? (Yes, we caught a bunch of fish.  Thanks for asking…).

But back to business, the Mexico I saw last week is a far cry from the Mexico I saw 20 years ago.  I was in the city of Campeche, population about 250K, I’m told.  The original city, dating to the 1600s and still sitting inside of a wall, sits right next to modern development that you would mistake for Anywhere, USA if you didn’t know better.  The four buildings next to our hotel, in order:  Church’s Fried Chicken, KFC, Burger King, McDonalds.  There was a Walmart around the corner.  Along the shoreline is a miles-long walking path with regularly placed lawns and monuments.  In the evenings, it was a mixed-use public space with a steady stream of Nike and Underarmour wearing walkers and joggers on the one side, and couples and groups perched on the seawall every 20 or 30 yards, talking and laughing, banging on their iphones, and generally having a nice time.

Convenient travel to Campeche is via another town you may have never heard of, Merida, which nonetheless is home to 1 million souls.  It too is a modern city with lots of contemporary architecture, fine restaurant, museums, trendy cafes, etc.  The highway in between is an Interstate that would look completely normal back here in the states, assuming you ignored the signage (which is of course in Spanish).

So you get the picture.  Mexico, Brazil, China, Russia, on down the line, they all want what we have.  And they are actively working to build their own versions of it.  Some see that as a great threat to the USA.  But from what I have seen, and not just on this latest trip south of the border, the more another group of people wants the lifestyle we have here, the more like us they become.  In other words, having what we have may not require them taking it from us.

The optimistic view of this dynamic would include some sort of discussion about conflict arising from radically different cultures and oppositional senses of priority.  So if the degree of difference is reduced, maybe so too is the potential for conflict and misunderstanding.

It is not hard to understand why a country would want to advance its position in the world.  And since world standings are at base, comparative, it is easy to view an advance of one as being a case of decline in another.  So maybe other countries do want more than what they have right now; but the evidence seems a lot more scant that they believe that they need to topple the US to get it.  Reality seems to be more a case of emulation, than conquest.

The final chapter of my trip came in the form of a text I received from a friend when I was walking through the Birmingham airport to collect my things and head home.  It just said “come over by the Pepsi machines.”  Sitting there was my friend, who works for a major franchising company.  He was on the way back in from Brazil, where they had just opened a couple of new Cold Stone Creamery stores.  As I recall, he’s off to Ghana for ten days right after Labor Day.  Then back to Tokyo after that.  He said somewhat ruefully that Egypt was not on his itinerary any time soon: the malls where they already have stores have been shut down by the government in order to protect the buildings from the riots.

So no, the world is not yet exactly like the US.  And it probably never will be.  But every time a group of foreign businessmen opens an American ice cream store or fried chicken restaurant, things get a notch more similar.  And maybe, just maybe, that’s actually not a bad thing for us.

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