An ungrateful group of Buddhist monks are rebelling in a distant province of my country. I have done my best to deal with the matter quietly, but they have managed to get the leaders of Western countries involved. President Bush is demanding that I negotiate with their leader. I cannot give credibility to the instigator of a provincial rebellion without encouraging mutinies elsewhere, but I do not want to sour our relations with important countries, especially not with the Olympic Games in our capital this summer. What should I do?
Bothered in Beijing
You might apply Spengler’s Iron Law of History: stick around long enough, and you turn into a theme park. The province in question has an ancient and colorful culture with a devoted Western following among spiritual tourists, including a number of prominent Hollywood actors. It appeals to Western nostalgia for a nonexistent past far from the anxieties of modern life. You can’t afford to allow a province to secede, of course. Why not change the name of the provincial capital to “Shangri-La” and say that it isn’t a province at all, but only a theme park? No one cares about a rebel theme park. Let the monks run the place, and give them the gate receipts as well as the food and beverage concession. They can spin their prayer wheels all day and get paid for it.
It’s all about money, after all. As Abraham Lustgarten wrote of your rebels in the Washington Post on March 23, “Their culture has been packaged for tourism. Business is booming. But they aren’t getting any of the bounty. This, more than violations of human rights and religious freedom, is what fueled the riots.”
It may seem outrageous to turn a substantial chunk of territory over to an amusement park, but the idea has been floated before, of all places in the United States. New York Times columnist Nicholas D. Kristof proposed to turn part of 10 American states into a theme park called “Buffalo Commons,” thus “rescuing the rural Great Plains by returning much of it to a vast Buffalo Commons. The result would be the world’s largest nature park, drawing tourists from all over the world to see parts of 10 states alive again with buffalo, elk, grizzlies and wolves” (October 29, 2003). That was before the boom in wheat prices, of course. Farming pays better than tourism these days. Still, if Americans can take seriously the idea of turning North Dakota into a Wild West theme park, they hardly can object to the same treatment for the province in question.
There is no shame in running a theme park. Some of my favorite cities have been theme parks for quite some time, for example Venice, the Las Vegas of the 17th century, or Vienna, where instead of Mickey and Goofy, you meet Mozart and Maria Theresa. That appears to be the main function of the British monarchy after the Diana business.
The monks do not practice a religion so much as a sort of folkloric animism that is out of place in the modern world. That is what makes them appear so charming to the spiritual tourists of the West. Attractions of this sort aren’t rational, and there is no point arguing about it. Give the tourists and the monks what they want, and promote the exchange of currency for a spiritual frisson.
Speak truth to paranoia
Just when I thought I had locked up the Democratic nomination for president of the United States, the media made a scandal out of the pastor of my church. They played video clips in which he blamed the government for inventing the AIDS virus and for giving drugs to young black men order to get them into jail. It sounded pretty crazy, and made me look bad. Now, I denied ever having heard his craziest sermons and gave a speech arguing that my white grandmother was just as big a racist as my pastor, but the problem lingers on. What should I do?
Shivering in Chicago
You may have to take a big risk. Your white grandmother doesn’t frighten voters, but your pastor does, not only because he sounds racist and anti-American, but also because he sounds like a raving loonie in the video clips. Some voters may fear that you are one person in front of a black audience, and another person altogether on the campaign trail. The voters want to hear you speak truth to paranoia. You should ask for the pulpit of your church and tell your congregation (and the television cameras) something like this:
Our pastor was wrong to appeal to your rage. Rage only hurts you. Rage is what puts a third of young black men in the criminal justice system. The government doesn’t give them drugs to sell. Criminals do. And the drugs they sell hurt you more than anyone else. The government helps you by locking up criminals, because black people are the main victims of crime perpetrated by other black people. And don’t blame the government for AIDS. If you don’t want to get AIDS, don’t shoot dope with dirty needles, and you fellows, get off the “down low.” Stop blaming other people for your troubles and take responsibility for your own lives.
If you get out of the room alive, you will be a shoo-in for the White House.
I am chairman of the central bank of the world’s biggest superpower. Some of our biggest investment firms have failed recently, and I have had to bail them out. The rest of them are stuffed full of ridiculously complex structured securities, and many of them would be bankrupt if we forced them to value their portfolios at fair market prices. I cut interest rates almost every month, but it doesn’t seem to do any good. What should I do?
Paralyzed on the Potomac
Even your superpower doesn’t have enough money to bail out all of the bankrupt banks and brokers, so you will have to employ triage. Instead of holding auctions for central bank liquidity, take a leaf from the street hustlers who play Three Card Monte, and propose a central-bank game called Three Card Bernanke. Each bank that guesses the right card out of the three on the table gets a bailout.
Why would you want a job where everybody will blame you for all the things that go wrong due to the malfeasance of your predecessors? You might be happier teaching economics again. Interest rates in your country are headed towards zero. Now that Toshihiko Fukui has left the Bank of Japan, why not ask him to take your job? He’s already brought interest rates down to zero and bailed out a bankrupt system once, and it will bother him much less than it will bother you.