Interviewed by Louis James, Editor, International Speculator
L: Doug, we’ve gotten a lot of follow-up questions to our conversation on currency controls. People want to know more about Argentina and why you like it so much. So, let’s talk about Argentina.
Doug: Sure. This is a good time, too, because I’m having a sort of house-warming party at the world-class resort we’re building in Salta province, northwest Argentina. With the stipulation up front that I obviously have a financial interest in that project, I still think that, for a number of reasons we’ll get into, Argentina is simply the best place in the world to weather the economic crisis. Yesterday is not too soon to start working on getting your assets and yourself out of harm’s way.
L: Okay, so let’s start with basics: why Argentina?
Doug: Well, I’ve been to 175 countries, most of them several times. I’ve lived in 12, defined as having spent enough time in the country to have rented a place to live or bought real estate and set up housekeeping. The thing is, technology has now progressed to the point at which any sufficiently motivated person can pretty much live wherever he or she wants. But most people still have a medieval serf mentality in this area, and tend to live in or near the place where they were born and grew up. And they tend to think that the country they were born in is the best country in the world… I guess because they were born there.
L: All evidence to the contrary notwithstanding. And the more poverty-stricken and backward the place, the more fiercely patriotic its inhabitants tend to be. I suspect this is a modern expression of tribalism.
Doug: I’ve noticed that too – you travel now as much as I used to, so I’m not surprised we see most things the same way. But, as you know, I’ve never had a tribal inclination myself. And having been to so many places, seen their pluses and minuses, it’s all the more clear to me how ridiculous it is to see the world that way. Although, it must be said, the tribal way of organizing a society actually makes more sense than the nation state does – at least in a tribe you basically know everybody, typically have a blood or family relation with them, and almost certainly share values. The nation state is just a piece of geography controlled by a central government. This is another subject, for another time, but I believe the nation state is on its way out, and in the process of being replaced by what Neil Stevenson called “phyles” in his seminal book The Diamond Age.
Anyway, I asked myself, “Where is the best place to live, in order to enjoy life to the max, be freest, and enjoy the highest standard of living with the least amount of aggravation?” I looked at all the countries around the world, their pluses and minuses, and came to the conclusion that Argentina offers the best risk/reward and cost/benefit ratios of any country on the planet at this time.
L: Can you tell us more about how you came to that conclusion?
Doug: By a process of elimination. A couple generations ago, if you’d asked me where the best place to live was, I’d have put my finger on the United States. Back when it was still America, it offered a lot of freedom, a lot of opportunity, and had a lot of domestic capital. But things have been changing, and are changing very rapidly in the U.S. now. It’s no longer what it used to be. So the U.S., regrettably, no longer makes the cut – at least not if you have some capital.
L: It’s no longer the land of the free and the home of the brave. It’s become a land of obedient subjects who allow the government’s bread and circuses to distract them from the fact that they have been cowed.
Doug: Sadly so. And Europe is worse. It’s hide-bound, constipated, heavily taxed and regulated, highly socialistic, and is suffering from what may turn into a demographic collapse.
L: My ex was from Germany, and she told me families were basically paid by the government to have children.
Doug: It’s not working; few people are having kids. But there’s massive immigration, primarily from Muslim countries.
L: Those people are often very hard working and entrepreneurial, but they are not assimilating.
Doug: They are not assimilating, and Europe is becoming less European. Worse, the cultural clash could turn into something more serious, given the increasing tension between the West and Islam. The Crusades never really ended – they just seem to have time-outs between rounds.
L: Europe could turn into the battlefield the Cold Warriors feared it might, but in a totally different war.
Doug: Yes. It’s a conflict that goes back to the 8th century, and I don’t think it will be resolved any time soon. So, I’d rule out living in Europe.
Doug: Completely hopeless for anything other than a hit and run speculation. Too much racism, too many other serious and deeply entrenched problems.
L: And the Orient?
Doug: I’m a big fan of the Orient – I really like it. But frankly, if you’re of European extraction, you can have a great life in the Orient, but you’ll never become part of society there. It’s just not going to happen.
L: Why is that so important? When I moved to Utah, people told me the same thing; the Mormons wouldn’t invite me to their picnics if I didn’t convert. But I didn’t want to go to their picnics. I just wanted to be left alone. I loved it.
Doug: I understand, and value my privacy as well. But I enjoy going out to dinner with good friends at great restaurants. I like playing polo, and that’s not something you can do alone. I like a friendly poker game once in a while. There are many benefits to society, and I enjoy them. But as pleasant and convenient as the Orient is, it’s also pretty crowded; I like wide-open spaces.
L: You just don’t want the cost of participating in society to exceed the benefits.
Doug: As a practical matter, that’s right. There are moral issues as well, but that’s another conversation.
L: Okay. So, eliminating the U.S., Europe, Africa, and Asia leaves Latin America and Down Under.
Doug: Oddly enough, as I speak to you (for free, on Skype – I love technology!), I’m in New Zealand. Rick Rule and I bought a big ranch on the ocean ten years ago, and I also bought a smaller ranch on the Clevedon River. I first came here, as you know from our conversation on the subject, for the polo. It was kind of a joke. People used to ask why I came to New Zealand, and I would say it was for the kangaroos. “But,” people would say, “There are no kangaroos in New Zealand.” “Yeah,” I’d reply, “I was misinformed.” But it was really for the polo.
New Zealand is a delightful place. I think I’ll keep my ranch here, because I like it. But the fact is that, for all of its advantages, New Zealand is an island, and it’s pretty much at the end of the road. It’s not very sophisticated, quite frankly, and it’s become quite expensive.
When I first moved here, and was recommending the place highly in the International Speculator, it was almost as cheap as Argentina is today. It was so cheap buying a meal in a restaurant, you’d almost feel guilty. But since then, the currency has doubled in value and domestic prices have risen more rapidly than in the U.S., so the general cost level is about the same as in the U.S. It’s not a bargain anymore.
That’s even more true for Australia, which is bigger, but isn’t as pleasant, to my way of thinking. Entirely apart from the fact that everything that moves there, on the land or in the sea, tends to be deadly.
L: And that leaves Latin America.
Doug: Exactly. Within that, what do we have? Central America, to be brutally brief, is “okay.” But those countries simply have no class. When it comes to South America, I’m very partial to Argentina, Chile, and Uruguay. Of these, I prefer Argentina. Why? Because it has a down-at- the- heels, but very classy, elegance. That kind of reflects the fact that, a hundred years ago, it was the major competitor to America for the best place to go if you were a European looking to immigrate to the New World. It attracted many of Europe’s best and brightest – and their capital.
Argentina blew it, of course, transforming itself from having one of the highest standards of living in the world to an economic basket case over the course of the 20th century. But in spite of how monumentally stupid the government of Argentina is, with controls and regulations on everything, a big bureaucracy, and so forth, that’s compensated for by the fact that the place is very, very inexpensive. Whether you’re looking at real estate or day-to-day expenses, it’s much cheaper than either Chile or Uruguay. Also, I’ve found that on a practical level, the government leaves you alone more than most.
Uruguay, of course, is just across the Plate River from Argentina. It’s got some advantages, but it’s rather like a backward, yet more expensive, province of Argentina.
L: Why’s that?
Doug: It’s a smaller country than Argentina, one tenth of the size, both in population and land area. It’s long been known as a kind of “Switzerland of South America.” It’s a banking haven. Until recently, there was no income tax in Uruguay. Idiotically, they just slapped one on domestic income, but foreign income is still tax-free there. That draws a lot of rich foreigners, who have a disproportionate effect on prices. They bring a lot of capital, and the country’s currency has risen about 30% against the Argentine peso in the last year. So, it’s nice, but it’s a quiet backwater – except for Punta del Este during January and February, when it’s one of the most hopping places on earth. But Uruguay is considerably more expensive than Argentina at this point.
A lot of Uruguayans, if they’re in a position to, tend to want to live in Buenos Aires instead of Montevideo. Montevideo is a place that still has horse-drawn wagons and gauchos standing around on street corners, drinking mate.
L: And the Graf Spee in the harbor.
Doug: [Laughs] I can’t help but think of that when I’m there. The place is in a time warp, although a lot less than it used to be. When I first went to Argentina, in 1980, I felt I was taking a trip back to the 1950s. Then, when I went across the river to Uruguay, I felt I was taking a trip back to the 1930s. They still had the old black, Bakelite telephones. That’s all changed, but these countries are still caught in a bit of a time warp.
L: And Chile?
Doug: Chile is the unsophisticated mining province that made good… It’s modern, everything works, and the capital city of Santiago is clean and nice, if plagued by air pollution. But it’s a lot more expensive than Argentina or Uruguay, and doesn’t have the same charm. Pinochet, for all his faults, put the place on the road to success. It’s estimated the average Chilean has more net worth than the average American now.
L: So it’s Argentina.
Doug: Yes. For one thing, I like its wide-open spaces. It’s like the western U.S. Argentina is the size of the eastern U.S., but it has only 40 million people, and about 40% of those are centered around Buenos Aires. So, once you get out of BA – which is one of the great cities of the world: sophisticated, marvelous, you can get everything and anything you want there, just one of my favorites – you really are in the countryside. In most places, you can drive for hours through incredible scenery, and not see another car. I like that.
Sometimes people, who haven’t been there, look at me in a questioning way when I mention Argentina, because they’ve heard of the government. But it’s not evil, or dangerous, like many. It’s just corrupt, incompetent, and inefficient – which is actually much better than the alternatives, when we’re talking about governments. But there are disadvantages, too. Through one of the most impressive acts of government stupidity I’ve ever seen, Argentina, a country world-renown for its beef, might actually end up having to import beef this year. It’s insane. Like Saudi Arabia importing oil. But, that’s what governments do.
Still, you can get the best beefsteak in the world for, oh, I would say a sixth of what you’d expect to pay for something equivalent in the U.S.
Q: Okay, Doug. Thanks for another challenging but enlightening conversation.
Casey: My pleasure.