Morning Thanks

Garrison Keillor once said we'd all be better off if we all started the day by giving thanks for just one thing. I'll try.

Friday, October 24, 2014

"Out of Africa" (vi) -- bottomless filthy lucre


It's blessedly impossible not to notice what's happening at gas stations. Even the Coop up the street is selling its liquid gold at $2.85 a gallon. Unheard of. The price may well be even lower south of here--always is anyway. Soon enough, gas prices will be a buck less per gallon than it was not all that long ago. Amazing.

Obama's huge 2009 payroll tax cut, the largest in history, put $400 into the pockets of every American family, money the government hoped people would spend and thereby right the economy after the worst dunking it took since the 30s. Barely a memory right now, but true.

That's nothing, a story on NPR said a few days ago. What economists claim, the story reported, is that "Americans spend so much money on gas that for every penny you drop the price and keep it there for a year, you've increased American spending power by $1.4 billion." Every penny. 

Really. Incredible. Let me run through that again--for every penny the price of gas drops and stays there for a year, American spending power rises by $1.4 billion dollars, a huge amount, far bigger than the biggest tax cut on record.  

I'm sure someone will dispute that, but I'm going to let it sit for a while, knowing darn well that the $2.85 I paid last weekend is a dream. I'll let you do the math. If the price stays there--and I know that's a big if--massive shifts will occur in the economy. They already are--at least for now.

I wish I were smart enough to determine what drives oil prices, what role, for instance, American oil successes have in dropping prices or how the Saudi's cut in production--or at least distribution, for all we know--fits in to the sign outside the station. I don't get it really, but I know more about piles of money oil accumulates.

Lots of it ended up in Africa, where lots of oil comes from. 

 There are places in west Africa where stunningly beautiful buildings leap out at you from areas that otherwise suffer the peculiar characteristics of African urban blight. Some of those buildings look as if they've descended miraculously from the north, where their design is more typical, in Arab Africa. They're beautiful--they really are. They're business class or better, not really high rises, but four and five and six stories at least, all of them in a stunning set, almost like toys.

To say Omar Gaddafi pocketed a fortune during his misrule in Libya is an obscene understatement. At the time of his death, he was thought to have 200 billion amassed in all kinds of places, including a goodly chunk in South Africa. He had enough to give each of the 6.5 million people in Libya $30,000, if he wanted. Which he didn't. But he did give it away. He did a lot of building in west Africa, trying to buy favor, trying to rule, just like every one else who's invaded the place.

I don't think I'll ever understand what kind of wealth oil production has lavished on those who control it, in the Middle East or elsewhere. The super rich live in ways I can't even imagine. What I do know, after traveling in west Africa, is that Middle Eastern oil has done unbelievable things.

The highway between the capital of Niger, Niamey, and Maduaoa, is maybe 200 miles of agricultural land and a hundred villages, the last one indistinguishable from the one before. Somewhere central in those tiny towns is a well, a public well, maybe with a pail and rope. The women are there, dressed in fabrics that seems astounding amid all of the earth tones. Mud huts with thatched roofs mushroom all around; and, up close to the road, a half-dozen skinny arbors lean in contrary directions, the places where the merchants set up trade and stay out of the sun. Kids play all over. Mopeds buzz around like flies.

Most of those hamlets have no more than 100 people--or so it seemed to me. But just about every one of them had one brand new building, bigger than all the rest, cleaner than all the rest, more tidy than all the rest. Those buildings weren't always the same size--some were no bigger than a double garage--but all were new and all were well-kept. Mosques. There may well have been some exceptions, but it seemed that every last village had a brand new mosque.

It seems they were gifts from afar, most of them from oilmen in Qatar. Think of it this way, it was as if the state if North Dakota had determined to build a brand new Baptist church in every hamlet in Mississippi. In every town imaginable they'd construct a tidy new house of worship. No matter how run down, no matter how ailing, where there was a town there'd be a new church. 

Gaddafi was a madman whose wild dreams included someday becoming the King of Africa, "the King of Kings," he called himself. He gave himself ridiculous titles and gave lots of African countries immense gifts to help him ascend to the unwieldy dreams he believed would certainly come true, including a United States of Africa.

Gaddafi, like Ozymandius, is gone. Look on, ye mighty, and despair.

But all that oil money, more than I can ever imagine, is still stuck in all kinds of places, including real estate in countless African places.  There was no end to his fortune.

There is, in the Middle East, in North Africa, so much oil money that it's no wonder the world can't leave the place alone. Nor is it a mystery why that immensely well-heeled corner remains a a boiling cauldron. 

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