Sunday, March 06, 2011

Biz Thoughts At A Distance

Chewing twigs and other thoughts

Ordinarily I don't listen to Rick Steves.

Once in a while I'd trip and fall into a travel video, but since losing free basic cable, and following the digital homicide of even the minimal analog television signal I was able to suck in through those metal feelers on the set, I'm glad to say that this can never happen again.

If there was ever a good reason for intercontinental nuclear war, it would be to put an end to Rick Steves' prissy little voice dicing vacuous thoughts into bits of pearly foamed sibilant inanity.

Being chained to the wall in an endless room of fingernails dragging down an infinity of chalkboards would be ecstasy compared to enduring another of his mindless travelogs. You know. The ones suited for retired bank tellers and aged, redundant clerks. People who have long ago experienced brain death. Without noticing.

If that war comes, the first hit should be on Rick Steves' studio.

Not long ago I read a couple travel books by Chuck Thompson.

I am not a traveler. I am totally ignorant of this stuff. I'll trust Chuck on travel. He's been around. He hates Rick Steves.

"The biggest reason travel writing is dull... is that most of it is devoid of anything approaching an authentic point of view. On those rare occasions when travel writers are allowed to express an actual opinion, it must be a completely harmless one that's also shared by the travel industry at large. These are usually offered as hard-hitting commentaries describing how 'quaint' a hotel room is, how 'mind-blowing' a nature park is, or how 'mouthwatering' a chef's specialty is."

In "To Hellholes and Back", Thompson, who was once left penniless and possessionless on a remote island after a band of giggling, seemingly charming Thai girls made off with his valuables, and who was forced, in the only futile act of desperation left to him, no matter how hopeless, to jump into the sea in his underwear and swim after the retreating ferry, explored four destinations that were previously on his no-go list.

Places that will kill you, and then feast on your soul.

Democratic Republic of Congo. India. Mexico City. And (leaving the worst until last) Walt Disney World.

Rick Steves also has a weekly radio show. I hate that too.

But this week one of two featured guests was Seth Kugel, who writes the "Frugal Traveler Blog" at NYTimes.com, and who last summer traveled Latin America for several weeks, including Nicaragua.

Dud.

Total dud. Thud.

The other big guest was Paul Theroux.

I like Paul Theroux. He complains for a living.

If there are bugs in his bed he'll count them all, and tell you about them all.

Typically though, his issues and observations are much deeper than that. And hey, anyone who can drink traditionally-brewed kava after watching it being made gets my respect. I'd have to pass, being allergic to human saliva other than my own.

Go, Paul.

Theroux was also one of the very first to serve in the Peace Corps. Fifty years back.

He thought of Kennedy as a right-winger.

Early on he learned to dismiss all other politicians too. They will say anything and everything just to stay in power another two weeks. And he saw first hand the effects of foreign aid, which if ever done right would do good, but whose only tangible effect is to keep sleek, fat local politicians supplied with shiny suits and large, softly-sprung expensive cars.

These days it's less of governments doing this, and more of The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which continues to ship wads of money, which filters down through infinite layers of bureaucracy, and dissipates before it hits the ground, spent on shiny suits and tail fins.

And as for the Peace Corps itself, Theroux ultimately decided that its only real value was to the volunteers. They got to see life from a different angle. He seems to generally think that locals everywhere can use help, but really have to do the work themselves.

I see maybe three ways of dealing with business in a poor place.

One is the common capitalist approach of coming in with lots of money, putting up buildings, and treating the locals as a cheap resource in a sweatshop environment. Wealth then flows right over the heads of the locals.

Another approach: Come in with lots of money, put up some buildings, and create a business like seaside resort that makes money off the relatively rich visitors coming through. Or sell real estate to rich foreigners. Still not a bunch of benefit for the locals though.

A third (and, being an ignorant fool, I'm going to claim for now that this is the last way) is to start a small business which may or may not employ anyone at first, and probably doesn't directly rely on the local economy, at first. As time goes by, if it grows, a business like this can use innovative practices to improve itself, to become more efficient, and ultimately to share the wealth.

The locally-hired staff learn how to think and do differently as they earn money. Say it's a bit like the Grameen idea, applied in small dabs here and there.

This would take time and thought, and the right local people, who would have to change slowly, over time.

The principles aren't that hard, though.

About 1990 I heard of an article just published in the Harvard Business Review.

It was about sausage. Making sausage. It was about Johnsonville Sausage of Sheboygan, Wisconsin.

About how the owner realized he couldn't keep it together, and had to do the one thing that a business owner never wants to: trust the people who work there.

Trust them to do good work, to want to do good work, to be smart, and efficient, and innovative. Not just to be cooperative and follow orders but to take the bit and run with it. To run the place.

They blew his socks off.

I know almost nothing about Nicaragua. I've been reading, but if I get there this summer I know it will be more different than I can imagine.

I am though from the most agricultural state, with consistently low unemployment and consistently top tier rates of high school graduation, but where, once you're out of grade 12, you stop growing. And can't find a decent job. Upward mobility is hard to imagine. Imagination is scarce. Tradition isn't.

People do what they do because they always have, and don't see how it could be otherwise, and I imagine that in Nicaragua it ain't so much different as the same, that way. But give someone a reason and a chance and eventually they'll catch on. And run with it.

If you don't like Mr. Stayer's story about the sausage plant, take a look at Sebastian Mallaby's piece from "The Atlantic" last summer.

Think about it. Just imagine. If.

Footnote: I've heard two speeches that Rick Steves gave, totally outside his business. About the value of travel in broadening and educating both oneself and those one encounters, about being human, about growing up. Floored me. This guy is really a frickin genius when he gets off his leash. He has also been on the board of NORML. (http://norml.org/index.cfm?Group_ID=5530) I still hate his travel crap.

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