“Africa is poor because she is not free,” said Dr Ayittey. We ran into George Ayittey this morning in the hallway here at Bally’s. He is speaking at the same conference as we are, on the relationship between freedom and wealth. It wasn’t the first time we’d met him, either.
“You probably don’t remember me,” we said, “but I was in your macroeconomics class at American University. It was a few years ago. Well, fifteen.”
“Ah yes. A long time ago. I hope to see you later. Remember, Africa is poor because she is not free.”
We recall getting a C+ in Dr Ayittey’s class as a college sophomore. There were too many static supply and demand curves and too much discussion of equilibrium for our liberal arts mind. Economics is a moving, dynamic thing. And it’s animated by the choices people make with money, which gives it a moral aspect as well. Perhaps that is why economics used to be called moral philosophy.
In any event, Dr Ayittey is probably right. There is a direct relationship between freedom and wealth. But what is that relationship? And before you can even answer that question, what is freedom? Does freedom mean elections? Does it mean free speech? Is democracy freedom? Does it mean the right to wear ill-fitting t-shirts and cheap trainers? If so, the US is the freest place in the world.
Everything seems so much faster and a little more careless in America. Maybe it’s a national informality. Or a hurry to get to the future to see what it’s like. Or it could just be a short attention span. Whatever it is, it always takes us a few days to get used to the somewhat frantic pace of American life. No wonder everyone is stressed.
There is another explanation for the stress, the obesity, the smoking, the gambling and the vacuous intensity with which Americans seem to rush headlong into their future. These could all be signs of an over-stimulated culture, the stimulants being too much cheap money and too much energy, not to mention too much sugar, too much fat and too many calories in general (yet even these dietary signs of excess are features of cheap money and cheap energy).
That’s what fuel does, though. It accelerates pace. Perhaps that’s why there’s a popular new protein-based sports drink we saw in stores. It’s called Accelerade. No fooling.
One of the things we’ve always loved about our homeland is this slightly chaotic, unplanned, mass dash into the future. There are a lot of moving parts in American life. It’s a big place, with people from all parts of the world, all of them juiced up on money, ambition and Starbucks. All those moving parts, like excited molecules, make for a lot of friction – social, economic and even psychological. No wonder it’s such a highly-medicated culture.
You see all that friction harnessed in Las Vegas for the purpose of having a good time, or at least the appearance of a good time. It gets poured into slot machines, black jack tables, and the enormous frozen drinks people carry around in the subterranean hallways that connect the massive hotels and casinos to one another.
The result is a continuous, hive-like mass of moving, apparently drunk old people, young people, immigrants, tourists and derelicts. It’s a human beehive of flashing lights and electronic sounds, with Celine Dion droning on in a nasal sporano soundtrack.
“Only in America,” people used to say about Vegas. But this isn’t true anymore. You can find the melt-up anywhere on the planet. Fuelled by cheap money and energy, the whole place has become a financial casino – except for Africa, which is not yet free enough to reach the kind of carefree, debt-backed decadence America now enjoys. But for how much longer?
Markets and Money