Last spring, when my partner and I were thinking big, a pal in the construction business told us, “You guys ought to think about what you know how to do.”
My partner and I planned to become international traders and merchants. We were not going to invent derivatives and off-shores, not because either of us had an inkling of the fragility of these financial instruments (or even a vague sense of what they were), but because we thought ourselves old-fashioned practical men, who counted wealth in heads of cattle, houses, sons. We planned to fetch precious items in the East and bring them to the West. Then we would bring desirable goods from the West to the East. You get the idea. The West, as far as we could tell, was where we were. The East was a little vague — somewhere between Bamako and Juba, give or take a few thousand kilometers of savannah. Big opportunities in Juba, if you can get there.
“What’s the purchasing power of an average household in Juba?” our pal in the construction business asked us.
“It’s true it’s low, according to the U.N. development index,” I said. “But then, first of all, the U.N. is a corrupt organization. And second of all, if you build it they will come, you know, a.k.a. if you bring it they will buy it.”
Just so. Conservatives have their delusions, too. Herein I was blocking out one reality on the basis of a selective right-wing bias against an admittedly dubious international institution, while inventing another reality on the basis of an idea that had solidified into fact.
Statistics may lie, but even if their source is tainted, you have to have some basis in fact for accepting or rejecting them. Old-fashioned practical men that we were, we had fallen for a certain kind of fairy tale regarding free markets. Of course they are better, in theory and in practice. But there is an even more basic rule, which is that people, including old-fashioned merchant men, will consider the situation and act accordingly. No businessman is going to refuse a fixed market, for example, if that is what he finds.
WHILE MULLING OVER the difficulty of getting reliable transportation between Ouagadougou and Bangui — big opportunities in Bangui — we reconsidered the situation. We figured maybe our pal had a point and we ought to concentrate first on tennis, build up our cash reserves, and analyze the market, as some younger members of our families were saying. My partner is an internationally ranked pro who competed on the circuit until just a few years ago (at least in our perspective), and we figured there was no reason not to capitalize on Washington’s mild climate, conducive to outdoor sports through most of the year.
“We want to offer a deal to families,” we told the city regulatory authorities when we began to devise our Business Plan. “If one member joins one of our classes, we offer an increasingly steep discount for each succeeding member who joins. Serve the community. You have to let us rent the courts cheap while we get this underway.”
The guys downtown gave us a booklet detailing rules and regulations for contracting with the rec dep, as they called it, and they also mentioned a few items having to do with getting ourselves set up as a legal entity. I went to talk to a lawyer whom I knew, and he explained the difference between an LLC and a partnership and then he got a free tennis lesson. We prescribed a course concentrating on foot work and the cross-court shot due to his apparent backhand potential, but he did not take us up on it.
I myself was learning a lot of tennis, playing four hours a day and watching my partner instruct young ladies, some of whom had remarkable legs. I studied his instructional techniques. I followed his gaze to understand what you had to look for in your pupil. It was different from trying to teach illiterate teenagers to read John Winthrop, but there were some common denominators. However, the best was when we played a set or two at the end of the day and then repaired to one of our back yards for some thiebou or yassa that the women prepared and talked about transportation difficulties between Niamey and N’djamena. We figured a lot of people in those booming metropolises were in the market for baseball caps, among other things. We planned to find cap manufacturers not in China, saving money by lowering our shipment costs and enhancing our consciences, notwithstanding our hard-headed realism.
Although I was playing better than when I was on my high school varsity, though admittedly vanity disfigures memory as ideology does faith in free markets, I also had a few other items to take care of and as summer peaked I decided to go to France where I knew I would have time to draft our Definitive Business Plan, including all the submissions to the D.C. regulatory authorities. I also needed to make a tour of some of the places where we expected to trade and it was better to go now than when the fighting resumed, as my sources told me it would, on the Chad-Sudan border. War never interfered with J.P. Morgan’s profits, I reflected, unaware that I was twisting still another old prejudice to meet my needs. There are nice public tennis courts in Paris, but like most things in France they are not free and you are lucky if you get a French guy to play more than half an hour without winding him. However, I found a Moroccan kid — Jewish, if you want to know — who had a return of service clearly modeled on Rafi Nadal’s. That’s the trouble with kids, they follow fashions. Hell of a good kid, though, dynamite on the court. Spoke perfect English, too.
Meanwhile, I was occupying myself with the idea that the world is a pretty good place, all things considered. To be sure, it did not look good, from afar, for the Grand Old Party. I put it down to the brazen prejudices of the European press corps, which despises George W. Bush even more irrationally than our media. Mr. Tyrrell was, I firmly believed, circulating my Key Speeches & Talking Points amongst the McCain campaign organization, and I told everybody it was going to be a landslide. Actually, I did not tell a lot of people, because I was concentrating on drafting our Business Plan and researching overland transportation in low-consumption markets.
THERE WERE A LOT of ill omens, according to certain individuals I knew who were In the Market, but someone had left a useful little book of statistics published by the Economist near a set of Ross Thomas novels and I learned that life expectancy in Bangladesh is over 60. That struck me as an awfully upbeat statistic and therefore reliable. Everyone had told me people in Bangladesh did not have a chance. With a life expectancy of almost Western dimensions, who’s to complain? This reinforced my sense that the basic questions of political economy in our time were settled, free men and free markets, and there was no way there would be an interruption of the Conservative Era in American politics and the spread of Democracy in international affairs. Meanwhile, I knew Governor Keating or somebody on the Campaign would call and tell me how much the Senator liked my speech (I would modestly mention that Mr. Tyrrell had made valuable suggestions) on Free Men and Free Markets.
I figured the campaign was over after the Palin nomination and I could extend my stay abroad, since we were assured of another stretch of free trade and economic growth, notably in the emerging markets. Real estate in Juba was a safe bet, particularly if we could get some plumbing fixtures over there — big market –, and the demand for baseball caps in Sudan was palpable, notwithstanding some unpleasantness in Nyala involving young men with Kalashnikovs. Boys will be boys, and who says baseball caps can’t be worn while wielding a AK-47?
With the campaign all but over, I knew my contribution would be folded into the victory speech or even the Inaugural Address and I wired, I mean e-mailed, Mr. Tyrrell to suggest we meet at a place called La Tour d’Argent, which we both enjoyed. He was occupied, however, and responded that I should join him for a cup of Wasmund’s in a few weeks and it did not even occur to me he did not mention the Senator.
I was back on my favorite courts off Alabama Avenue in October, and my partner and I figured we could use the extra time provided by the disturbances in the financial markets to refine our plans. However, being realistic and hard-headed, we acknowledged that we had not made as much money selling tennis lessons as we has spent on new tennis shoes, and the women told us they had obtained a C of O from the city to open a restaurant and there would be a shortage of food in the back yards because they were busy until night-time supervising the installations in the kitchen.
The little Economist fact book has a section on consumer goods ownership, and it is clear, if statistics mean anything, that in those regions we researched all summer, there is an opportunity to sell a lot more than baseball caps.
My partner and I played a couple of hard sets on November 4, after voting early, and talked about taking our game indoors next time. A bit of a bite in the air, long lines, no McCain buttons, you realize you could be selling T-shirts made out of some of those newfangled materials to people who want to stay fit all winter. What we needed to do, nonetheless, was check out some commercial toasters. And I had a food-safety class the next day. Whole lot to do in this business. Whole lot to learn.