Wednesday, December 13, 2017

Tunisia

I have never felt as sorry for Muslims as I did in Tunis.

Mohamed Bouazizi’s name and spirit are missing. The men here dally in dark cafes, drinking tea with mint leaves, watching soccer. There is no trace of any revolution. Ben Ali is somewhere comfortable, his Saudi backers even more comfortable. The new-old government in Tunisia’s capital have banned a political party, forgetting Britain's lessons with Sinn Fein. Hundreds of people dead in 2011, for what?

I have never felt as sorry for Arabs as I did in Tunis.

In 1956, freed from the yoke of French colonialism, President Habib Bourguiba convinced the Tunisian National Assembly to pass the Personal Status Code, which prohibited polygamy, defined court procedures for divorce, granted universal suffrage, and required the consent of both parties to a marriage. “With this one law, women became equal to men before the courts.” (Third World Women Speak Out, by Perdita Huston)

But Bourguiba miscalculated. Tunisia’s rural villagers did not know about the Personal Status Code. When a country is illiterate, how can they know the capital city’s intentions for them? They continued the old ways.

What happened to the ideals of this leader of women’s rights, this Arab feminist? Where is his spirit in Tunis? It is in a street named after him and a statue. (At least the street is lively.)

I have never felt so sorry for Arabs and Muslims as I did in Tunis.

A capital city should be filled with activity and discussion, but Tunis at night is dead. Most shops close at 8pm, street lighting is irregular, and finding the way back to my riad is difficult. Only stray cats, graffiti, and small garbage heaps acknowledge me. Sanitation workers cannot clean the garbage heaps from the busy day quickly enough—the streets are too narrow, too winding, too dark. I have seen men using handheld carts, the kind farmers attach to the back of oxen, hauling garbage alone.
There may not be enough money to fix potholes, install proper lighting, clean graffiti, create a flag that doesn’t look like a Turkish copy, or improve sanitation, but the police near the presidential palace ride shiny BMW motorcycles. In the city centre, numerous security forces carry the latest semi-automatic weapons.

Tunisian women have not convinced politicians to pay them to stand around with guns, but they have their own defense tactics. When an impatient grandmother wearing a black headscarf crosses a busy street, she wags her finger at each oncoming driver, not bothering to look, confident cars will stop.

I have never felt so awful for Arab Muslims as I did in Tunis.

Wherever I go, I enter at least one government building and take a photo. I take the photo behind the security barrier or entrance check. The photo is always of something harmless or within easy sight, something I can zoom in from outside if needed. In San Francisco, California, the police officers do not bother me, even when I loiter in their lobby. They have discretion and are above following pointless rules for the sake of following rules. Their job is to keep the peace and bothering a potential taxpayer does not make sense.

In Havana, in Tunis, and in any society with too few women workers and too much security spending, the story is always the same. When I step inside Tunisia’s Ministry of Finance and take a photo of the tiled wall, an armed and uniformed security guard runs up to me and grabs my arm, angrily ordering me not to take photos. He knows his job is pointless, but he must follow orders, tu comprends? Not following rules affronts his manhood, and in Tunisia’s post-colonial world, enforcing pointless rules is his raison d’ etre.
Other government workers, equally useless, not used to commotion, come outside their offices to observe. They have very nice suits. A nonconformist in a Tunisian government building must be an interesting sight to behold. Meanwhile, EU finance ministers approved a blacklist of 17 jurisdictions deemed as tax havens. Tunisia is on the list.

I have never felt so despairing for young Arabs as I did in Tunis.

When I ask a guide the following day if we can enter a government building, the one over there with the interesting tiles, he calmly explains the building I would like to enter is for government employees. He does not need to add the word “only.” It is understood in Tunisia, which held democratic elections for the first time in 2012, the government does not work for him.

I have never felt so sad for young Muslims as I did in Tunis.

My host, a kind man named Oussama, the owner of both French and Tunisian passports, tells me politicians loyal to Ben Ali, the president who fled to Saudi Arabia after the student-led revolt in 2011, are re-gaining power. It is unclear whether the police or military would arrest Ben Ali if he returned, despite outstanding warrants for money laundering and drug trafficking.  

Oussama opines that the students’ 2011 nonviolent approach may have been a mistake. He does not look like a man who favors violence. He is slender, calm, has many books in many languages. He explains that after the revolution, the state disappeared and the mafia entered the void, but now the state is making a comeback. Unfortunately, Tunisians have lost the most important thing—their energy, so palpable in 2011. Young Tunisians today say they—the politicians—are all the same, which is the worst possible outcome. I do not tell him my successful Arab friend in America refers to the “Arab Spring” as the “Arab Winter.”  

I have never felt so happy for Arab Muslims as I did in Sidi Bou Said.

The sidewalks are (mostly) clean, excellent coffee exists in enough places, students with laptops write eagerly, and no one objects to people taking harmless photos. Posh restaurants, late hours, and stunning views of the sea and mountains seem indigenous, as does the color blue. It is impossible to be sad in a city where almost everything has been painted blue by man or Allah.
I have never felt so optimistic for African Muslims as in Sidi Bou Said.

Men and women sit together on rooftop salons, black and Arab Africans walk side by side, and men do not need soccer or cigarettes to socialize. Police officers with shoulder-strapped guns are also here, but they bring a different energy. They are more purposeful, more determined, more proud. One plainclothes officer in Sidi Bou Said is worth ten uniformed personnel in Tunis.

I have never felt happier for African Arabs as in Carthage.

Carthage has the nicest houses, the most money, the best-paved roads, and the most interesting history in Tunisia. Hannibal, son of Hamilcar Barca, was born here, his military tactics striking fear and respect into the hearts of the Roman Empire.

Tunisia’s most vibrant cultural center is here, away from most government ministries. Inside, surrounded by movie posters, I see, for the first time, Heinrich Böll speaking on television. Outside in December, young men and women of every shade of color mull about, chatting and laughing.

I have never felt so happy for Arabs and Muslims as in Carthage. 

Sunday, December 10, 2017

Simple Truths: De Facto Segregation


Author's note: I just discovered this post from many years ago. It's a draft, but I can't capture my original train of thought, so I am publishing it below "as is." I'm very surprised at #3, because I now firmly believe segregation, assisted by poor public transportation, is the cause of almost all major issues in modern countries. I don't mean only race-based segregation--I mean segregation of all kinds. In nature, birds of a feather may flock together, but if the human race's survival depends on "getting used to each other," segregation must be actively fought with the same planning and precision militaries fight wars.

Truth #3: Segregation may help minorities, at least in modern-day America.

Look at the history of assimilation in America. Which groups have been successful? How have they been successful? And why have we had so much "white flight"? Is "white flight" just a term for rich people trying to avoid an influx of poor people of a different color? Or is it a practical response to unwanted cultural change?

I don't know the answers to the aforementioned questions, but I do know there is safety in numbers. In America, as much as we advance the "melting pot" theory, the real power is in concentration, not integration. Democratic societies function based on elected representatives. Who chooses the representatives? The majority. If your group--whether professional, religious, or racial--is in the majority, chances are, your group will maximize its political potential. In contrast, if your group is in the minority, you will be dependent on the kindness of the majority to ensure your prosperity.

In good times, everyone is usually on the same page--it's the bad times that cause miscommunication and violence. History shows that when things get bad enough, majorities have no problem gassing millions of Jews, locking up Japanese-Americans, detaining and torturing Arabs and Muslims without due process, and so on.

In short, when the economy is doing well, Americans love assimilation; however, problems tend to arise whenever a recession occurs.

Truth #4: Most people don't even know our two biggest problems.

The proliferation of nuclear weapons is a massive problem--so is trying to compete in a globalized economy. Sure, other major problems exist, such as cybersecurity, a crumbling infrastructure, and a declining K-12 education system, but nuclear weapons and globalization stand out because we don't necessarily have the answers yet. 

Prague: Deservedly Weird

The Czechs are weird. My first day, a college student took pity on me, a confused-looking tourist on the tram (I should have downloaded the Jizdni rady IDOS app earlier), and invited me to a show. The show by Barbora Temejova turned out to be one of the highlights of my trip and better than the 300 koruna performance at a fancy Prague museum. 
How did I get into this small gathering? Through a revolving door filled with heavy books. Why a revolving door? Because this is where the Czech intellectuals met, in secret rooms, to plot against their Soviet occupiers. 

Like much of Europe, the Czechs were occupied by the Nazis. Just three years after the end of WWII expelled the Nazis and fascists, they had to battle Communism, which included the Soviet re-taking of property returned to their rightful Czech owners in 1945. The three-years' bout of independence wasn't forgotten when the Soviets came; if anything, the sight of the sickle and hammer reinvigorated the Czech spirit. 

Consider the (pre-Soviet) heroic but ultimately tragic Heydrich assassination attempt, memorialized in the National Memorial to the Heroes of the Heydrich Terror. Short version: the British helped a small team of Czechs successfully assassinate the local Nazi police chief, then received cooperation from local church leaders to hide the Czech shooters in an underground crypt below a small church. The way to the crypt requires pushing through an inconspicuously heavy, half-revolving door. (See a pattern?) Unlike visitors today, the Czech shooters had to hide in darkness, armed only with candles for light. (I didn't see a toilet, by the way.) Unfortunately, one of the parties involved in the assassination split after things didn't go exactly according to plan, and it's unclear whether he knew the Heydrich hit had worked. He eventually betrayed his colleagues, but the fact remains: the Czechs, unlike other Europeans, resisted. 
Tales from the Crypt

Adolf Kajpr, a Jesuit priest, attracted the Gestapo's attention for his anti-Third-Reich publications and was sent to the Mauthausen concentration camp. Yet, he never wavered in his faith and published still-relevant thoughts, such as the idea that liberal capitalism leads to atheistic humanism, but Communism promotes various forms of oppression and injustice, especially against religious adherents. Why? "[P]ure religious truths were regarded as a form resistance against those who claimed to possess the entire truth, freedom, and power." (Note to self: totalitarians hate competition.) 

Incredibly, Czech nonconformity can be traced back to the first President of Czechoslovakia, Tomas G. Masaryk. He was expelled from Catholic school, married a rich French-American woman from Brooklyn, took her last name as his middle name, and as a matter of principle, generally refused to honor convention. (Politicians matter, folks. For better or worse, they help shape a country's image and ability to credibly claim a particular value in the future.) 
If this isn't available on Netflix when I get back to California, I'm gonna be disappointed.

Other Czech iconoclasts include playwright and eventual President Vaclav Havel. Below are two of my favorite passages from perhaps the Czech Republic's greatest citizen: 
From Disturbing the Peace (1990)
Imagine meeting in secret cafe rooms with a playwright and plotting to drive the law-and-order Soviets so insane, they'd give up and leave. It actually happened. The Czechs managed to resist non-violently and in crazy enough ways to make a report sent to Moscow impossible or incomprehensible. For example, when the Soviets first came, Czech resisters removed all the street signs. In a non-GPS era, this action rendered the efficient Soviet machine slow, making navigation and mapping impossible. 

And the Czechs were just getting started. Try to envision a 22 year-old Soviet soldier patrolling the streets of Prague with a Kalashnikov. He doesn't know where he's going because there are no street signs. When he walks around, trying to maintain order, he sees this: 
"What is going on?" he thinks. No one is attacking him, so he can't shoot. The artist cleans up after the performance, so there's no litter. It's not against the law to "crow." Does he just stand there, looking like an idiot? How does he explain this incident to his local superiors, who then have to send a written report to straitlaced Moscow? If you're the 40 years-old local military commander, and you receive a call describing this performance--and others like it--do you even write a report? If you don't, you'll be accused of hiding information from Moscow, but if you do, you'll look like you've lost your mind and you might lose your job. What do you do? What do you do?

Suffice to say, Vaclav Havel and his band of misfits prevailed--but only after college students, who so often sacrifice themselves to shame adults and the Establishment into doing what should be done, set themselves on fire. Remember these names: 
Jan Palach, Jan Zajíc, and Evžen Plocek--they are heroes and better men than you and me. 
Memorial at Charles University

When women make the popular V-sign in photos today, they may not know its full history. It was in Wenceslas Square where President Vaclav Havel, a poet and playwright, made the V-for-victory sign to thousands of Czechs who had finally won their freedom from Soviet occupation. 
At Wenceslas Square, the site of Palach's self-immolation.
After I left Prague, I read a delightful book by an Australian woman who moved there in search of a more interesting life. The passages below are from Rachael Weiss's book Me, Myself, and Prague (2008), but I recommend you start with her more polished and recent work, The Thing about Prague (2014). Her insights are spot-on about the Czechs, whom she politely calls "eccentric." 

Weiss correctly describes the Czechs as rude by Western standards, but one must also remember much of the world thinks Westerners are idiots for walking around smiling all the time for no reason. Me, I say the Czechs have earned the right to be any way they like. If they want to be eccentric, rude, and notorious for having affairs, more power to them. Anyone repelling armed soldiers using art, nonviolence, and sheer confusion ought to be able to put a man on an upside-down horse in the middle of a bazaar and act as if that's perfectly normal. 
Your eyes do not deceive you. It is what is is.
If you visit Prague, try Medovnik (honey cake), and think of the Czechs as perpetually drunk Germans. Czechs are usually blunt, so it often feels like you're getting yelled at or ignored with no middle ground. I'm not a linguistics expert, but the way Czechs speak English indicates their language prefers to be precise and concise when possible. 

Just don't take anything too personally, whether it's the museum employee trying to be helpful by warning you not to buy a ticket because it's too late ("Why did you wait until you only had one hour left? You come tomorrow." I bought the ticket after realizing she wasn't actually giving me an order); to the sitting newspaper stand owner loudly demanding to know why you're standing in front of his stall (an American would just ignore the potential customer); to the waiter who ignores you even when you wave your hand trying to catch his attention. 

Despite the rudeness (an unintentional linguistic limitation?) and weirdness, you'll be pleased to know the Czechs, unlike most of Eastern Europe, have successfully integrated about 60,000 to 80,000 immigrants and made about half of them citizens. These Vietnamese immigrants weren't necessarily fleeing the North Vietnamese regime--some relocated voluntarily as part of the Communist alliance between Chinese-backed North Vietnam and the Soviet Union, which is why Vietnamese food in Prague is sometimes different from Vietnamese food in America.

Prague has too many tourist sights to list, but you should try to see the following: Charles Bridge, 

Basilica of St. James (aka Church of St James the Greater), 
I don't read Dan Brown's books, but look closely.

Church of St. Nicholas (in Old Town), the Dancing House, 
St. Vitus Cathedral (in Prague Castle aka Prazsky Hrad), the Franz Kafka Monument, 
Yes, the guy who wrote a weird story about a man who turns into an insect is Czech.

National Gallery aka Narodni galerie v Praze (with permanent and changing exhibitions in different locations--I enjoyed Julian Rosefeldt's "Manifesto," starring Cate Blanchett), Wenceslas Square (for its historical value--it's just a shopping area now), National Memorial to the Heroes of the Heydrich Terror, and Lobkowicz Palace. Five nights is sufficient. 

Lastly, here's a photo of dogs in the aforementioned royal palace. As you can see, you will never, ever be as weird as the Czechs. They are the original hipsters, and others will always be poor imitators. Unlike most artists today, their art and nonconformity had purpose, bravery, and substance, helping the Czechs achieve independence. The next time someone asks whether art and philosophy are useful, you can respond affirmatively--as long as you thank the Czechs. 

Saturday, December 9, 2017

The Role of Patents in Monopolies

One of the lesser-known reasons behind M&A and consolidation of markets (aka less competition) is the role of patents. Even if a small company has great ideas, at some point, to get access to the broader market, they will need licenses. Over time, the cost of such licenses may become prohibitive, encouraging consolidation. This is why open source is so important, but it's also why governments have lost credibility over time.

Rather than address the causes of needlessly prohibitive barriers, governments have attempted to deal only with the results of an increasingly unwieldy legal framework, which merely adds to its complexity--and which generates even more contempt for the elites who benefit from it. 


Let's take a couple of recent examples: Uber/Waymo and Fitbit/Jawbone. They've sued each other, a process that is supposed to create a check and balance protecting innovation. Problematically, it's impossible to know whether any party actually committed legal violations or trade secret theft without each side spending millions of dollars in legal fees that do nothing to promote innovation. In some cases, companies have spent hundreds of thousands of dollars arguing about superficial similarities in mobile phone design, down to the curves and grooves in a mobile phone's case (e.g., Apple vs. Samsung). 

If you are a small company threatening the market share of a larger company, the larger company has an asymmetrical payoff in suing you early and often--even if its case has little merit. The smaller company then has to raise funding for non-innovative purposes or become more dependent on outsiders to survive. As such, the status quo biases winners and losers based on which innovators have access to the best or most powerful venture capitalists and lawyers, many of whom are connected to the existing political establishment, especially in states where judges run for election. 

Worse, governments cannot unilaterally reform the patent development or certification process, partly because the procedures are often based on subjective interpretation and therefore the random assignment of a particular government employee. (e.g., is Amazon's "one-click" technology truly deserving of a patent? If so, which parts?) 

Meanwhile, laws and regulations relating to interpretation continue to expand to resolve increasingly complex or new issues, frustrating even sincere government employees who may not have recent technological expertise or who may be receiving such expertise secondhand from biased experts. Absent wholesale removal of patent application screeners who disagree with the executive branch's interpretation of truly non-innovative or innovative patents--a definition that may change every four years--lawyers once again take the helm. Compounding problems, as law school tuition has increased, legal fees have risen, making experienced (and even inexperienced) lawyers less accessible for smaller companies.

Conclusion: every system of any kind, once it achieves stability (often misconstrued for success), has three choices: bar newcomers, which increases social tension, reduces consumer choice, and renders diversity impossible; make competition outside the established system affordable and feasible, which often increases segregation; or adapt and suffer sacrifice. The primary cause of almost all problems in the developed world today is the inability of all parties--both public and private--to choose the third option.

Bonus: from Peter Thiel's From Zero to One


Bonus II: Much of globalization's discontents is merely new or freshly made capital moving from developed countries (that have not chosen to adequately reform existing legal systems) and into developing countries which lack similar barriers--exactly as one would expect new capital to behave in a rigged system. 

Thursday, December 7, 2017

A Primer on Modern History

The study of modern history is needlessly complicated. Unfortunately, most history teachers and professors spent their lives studying only a single subject or lived in only a few countries, rendering them unable to provide the context students so desperately need. I have tried below to provide a simple framework everyone should be able to agree upon. Without such a framework, historical understanding will fracture, and humanity will continue to repeat its same mistakes.
Since 1945, every single government and military has been focused on attaining or preventing others from attaining nuclear weapons. After the United States dropped bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, ending WWII, politicians and military leaders realized the existing defense/protection paradigm no longer applied. A country with the most skilled troops, superior munitions, most efficient supply chains, best hygiene (to prevent disease, which often killed more soldiers than active combat), and even superior strategy would not necessarily win as had been the case in the past. Now, only three things mattered: technology and the ability and willingness to use it. Developing brawn had given way to developing brains and gaining (accurate) information.

Military budgets increased R&D funding and began to emphasize covert operations. How could countries identify the best minds in the world and entice them to relocate? (e.g., Operation Paperclip.) When was a first strike politically acceptable? How could one determine whether a recruit would keep secrets? 

Such a shift required a mix of intrigue, psychology, persuasion, media influence, and propaganda. The intelligence communities realized they would be key players in the new paradigm and, in an era prior to CCTVs and ubiquitous technological surveillance, reliable human assets and agents would be the difference between winning and losing. Furthermore, where soft power and persuasion would not work, assassinations and abductions would--preferably through a third party ally. (Evidence: Operation Damocles, Israel assassinating Iranian nuclear scientist Ardeshire Hassanpour.)

Such immoral tactics were not enough for military and intelligence units, which resorted to false flag operations or coups on a much wider scale. (Gulf of Tonkin, Lavon Affair/Operation Susannah, Operation Ajax.) Whereas many experts agree the United States won WWII in large part because it entered the war later with fresher troops, more intelligence (including codebreaking), and more unity, democratic regimes now had to contend with international operations interfering with domestic governance. 


Such domestic resistance was unexpected and had the potential to upend military alliances post-WWII, which were tied with important economic treaties and investments. (See “most favored nation” clause: “The American workman, by 1960, had the highest standard of living in the world, and all due to what they genteelly called ‘the most favored nation’ clause in every commercial transaction with the East.” – Philip K. Dick)

The failure of Western governments to foresee strong domestic resistance to international policies led to more secrecy and a lack of transparency in the name of national security, both at home and abroad. The private security business, not subject to invasive government oversight, had begun its ascent. British-based Securicor is one example. In 1953, it specialized in delivery and logistics, eventually making its way into the telecom (aka surveillance and data-gathering) business. Today, it is part of G4S, the world's largest security company. With 585,000 employees, G4S is the world's third largest private sector employer and the largest in Europe and Africa. (See Logan (2017) for a dystopian example of the possible evolution of private security firms.) 

Returning to the 1960s, covert operations and violations of territorial sovereignty (Operation Menu) became more accepted within governments as America realized its superior armaments were not working in Vietnam even as nuclear energy and weapons were becoming more widespread, necessitating alliances that created two camps: one pro-Soviet Union (which in practice often also meant pro-China), one pro-American. Meanwhile, existing and aspiring world leaders slowly started to understand that favorable (or in the case of Vietnam, unfavorable) media coverage and asymmetrical warfare—later used by Osama bin Laden and ISIS—could defeat larger powers or at least convince them to leave. Like private security firms, the general media industries--in this case, television and radio--began their steady ascent. 

Its ability to influence world affairs now seemingly in jeopardy due to increasing Chinese and Soviet influence in Asia and Eastern Europe as well as domestic turmoil, America began addressing matters under its direct control more forcefully. Namely, American police began using the same tactics as the military and intelligence communities on its own people. (Potential lesson: once the military uses a particular strategy successfully, it is only a matter of time before the civilian government deploys similar strategies.) 

Surveillance, infiltration, and financially-debilitating lawsuits were used against antiwar groups and activists from MLK to Muhammad Ali to John Lennon. The term “law and order” became a justification for a proxy war against protesters, later morphing into President Reagan’s "War on Drugs." Ironically, countervailing forces that bolstered social change came partly from the military, which had relied on greater female participation in the private workforce during war and soldiers of color, including but not limited to Jackie Robinson

Politicians like America's Joseph McCarthy had used the media to blacklist anyone deemed an adversarial nonconformist in the 1950s at the same time the Soviet Union and its satellite forces were blacklisting and jailing dissidents. As power-hungry politicians gained more power, propaganda against dissenters became more widespread, with police officers in some jurisdictions ordered to attack nonviolent protestors while federal agencies (J. Edgar Hoover) spied on civil rights leaders. As the lines between international and domestic operations became blurred, the Watergate scandal was a natural and inevitable result. (See The Most Dangerous Man in America (2009).) 

Were it not for the courageous work of American whistleblowers and journalists (All the President’s Men (1976)), who often ignored conservative legal advice from their own employers, secretive operations would have continued without abatement. Unfortunately, civilian resistance movements in the East were not as strong as ones in the West, maintaining the East's status quo--a status quo that would later prove to be unsustainable, essentially bankrupting the Soviet Union and ending its petro-military-industrial economic model. 

In the West, where the status quo was fraying, giving rise to greater diversity, foreign powers took advantage of the superpowers’ distractions in Asia and Southeast Asia to cooperate outside designated U.S. or Soviet-led alliances, including economically, much in the same way China would later take advantage of America’s failure to “pivot to Asia” after the costly and counterproductive 2003 Iraq War. (See, for example, creation of ASEAN in 1967. Note also that long before the 2003 Iraq invasion, “mid-level” countries like Argentina and Iran were working together to resume nuclear cooperation, only to see outside events interfere with their relationships, such as the Buenos Aires 1992 embassy bombing, in which neither Argentina nor Iran strangely derived any benefit.)

In 1973, the OPEC embargo added yet another disruptor to the existing world order, namely the integrity of the oil supply chain, which formed the underlying basis of the U.S. dollar’s strength and numerous economic treaties. Post-Nixon and the cessation of active armed conflict between the West and the East, economic statecraft became the way forward, with America’s mighty Navy and more developed financial markets giving the West a clear advantage over the East. Trade, oil, weapons development, and continued control of nuclear energy would dominate international relations until the birth of the internet in the 1990s. The dissolution of the Soviet Union on December 26, 1991 provided America with the opportunity to create what President George Bush, formerly a CIA Director, called a “new world order,” which lasted until September 11, 2001. And here we are


Bonus: another historical pattern is that when two countries enter into a treaty—whether to avoid war or after a conflict—often only one party intends on upholding the terms. The other party uses the break in tensions to disarm—both literally and figuratively—the other signatory, eventually invading the former enemy and prevailing through political chicanery.

Tuesday, December 5, 2017

Auron Tare: Albania's Bill Bradley

Auron Tare is that rare, almost extinct breed of politician who answers his own emails, gives direct answers, and inspires respect. I met him—all 6’4’’ inches, in a still athletic frame—for the first time on a rainy December Monday in a cafe. Tare came in jeans, a North Face jacket, and hiking shoes. Throughout the conversation (edited below for clarity and space), two themes arose: be authentic and differentiate yourself through excellent service.

On Travel and Tourism

Tare: With tourism, it is how you present it to the public, and how well you present it publicly.

Me: Has Albania done a good job attracting tourists?

Tare: The foreign market has done a great job discovering us. We don’t have a large tourism budget and have not engaged in widespread marketing. We need to be more niche-oriented and not seek to attend all the larger fairs. Attracting the right kind of the market is the key to developing something different. 

Me: What can Albania do better?

Tare: Many things, but to start, we should focus on incremental improvements, which are very important. First, good professional guiding [aka tour guides]. Second, train the taxi drivers. When I go to London or America, I know I am not going to be cheated. The first contact for visitors when they arrive should be a professional experience.

Me: How do you change the culture, which tilts towards inertia or short-term thinking? And how do you compete for the same tourist dollars as much larger countries?

Tare: Simple. Get a program of 30 people. Explain the program. Install good customer service. Explain the concept: the better you are, the more business you are going to get. Don’t cheat the tourists. Put on some cologne, perfume. Speak some English. Say a few nice words. When the passenger hails a taxi, get out of the car, take the bags, open the door, close the door, and so on. Here, some airport taxis tried charging 50 USD when 20 USD is normal fare to the city centre. When you arrive, the taxi is usually your first impression, and we want your first impression to be good and we want you to feel welcome. It’s a simple thing. [That 30 USD gap, is it worth destroying the tourist’s first impression of us?]

[Remember] Where are we? We are surrounded by Turkey, Greece, Italy. We are a small country. How can we compete? We have to improve the product. We have to have nice signs, nice guides.  We have to make people feel good. We want a more authentic feeling. That is how we are going to compete. 

Me: It’s interesting you mention tour guides. I went to a travel agency, and they only had packages for foreign destinations like Montenegro. I could not find anything for Shkroda or Gjirokaster.

Tare: [shakes his head] Tour guides and tourism itself need a lot of attention. Tourism can be one of the possibilities for economic development for a country like Albania. People here think tourism is something that happens [only] in June, July, August. No one thinks you have to work in the winter to prepare yourself for the summer.

Me: What do you think about Uber?

Tare: I think nothing. I see a general approach in raising the level of taxi drivers.

Me: Like you said, you are a small country. Uber won’t come by itself because it’s not cost-effective. I believe the UAE, probably the world’s best marketer in tourism, created its own taxi hailing app before allowing Uber. As a tourist, I feel much more comfortable if there is a ride-hailing app.

Tare: [nods acknowledgment]

On UNESCO and His Work with UNESCO

Tare: Albania has three UNESCO sites. One I created: Butrint National Park. The others are Gjirokaster and Berat, both of which have castles. Berat has an interesting combination of Ottoman and Byzantine influence in one place.

Me: How can I get there from Tirana?

Tare: Get a cab, bus, or minibus. I can send you the info.

Me: Please do. What is the process for designating a UNESCO site?

Tare: It is a long process, a very bureaucratic process. We approach it from different angles.

Me: How long does it take create one [a UNESCO site]?

Tare: A few years. You don’t “create” a site—the main reason for UNESCO is to try to protect the site. If it has universal value, then you approach UNESCO. The idea is to protect and save the place.

Me: What are the benefits of UNESCO? Do you provide experts? Funding?

Tare: Yes, the UN gives experts. A delegation comes. UNESCO provides professional expertise. You might get some money but that’s not the point. You need to do a great job yourself and make the site work well. Don’t depend on UNESCO, because the most important goal is to be self-sustaining. That is the ultimate goal: the site is to be self-sustaining.

Me: How do you make a site sustainable? So many so-called tourist spots have inadequate signs or background about a place, even in popular destinations like Turkey.

Tare: It’s management. Turkey has some nice sites. In fact, it has a lot. Money is not enough. I work very hard to make a site independent so a site works without any state-funded budget. We want a situation where you don’t care about UN or UNESCO because it functions well.

Me: But doesn’t a restoration cost a lot of money?

Tare: [In many cases,] It is not necessary to restore. What you do is preserve it. We conserve it. We present it. We make it a delightful experience. The moment you start putting too much restoration, you lose the charm, you lose the authenticity. Have you been to Niagara Falls?

Me: Yes, the Canadian side. I loved it. It’s one of my favorite travel experiences, breathing in the air.

Tare: It is disgusting.

Me: Wait, the Falls itself, or what is around the Falls?

Tare: The stores around it, the tourist center. It is cheesy. It is all for money. It’s disgusting.

Me: Ah, you mean the generic stores and kitsch a few blocks from the Falls. Yes, I agree.

Tare: Mass tourism destroys the beauty of nature. There’s a casino there—it is disgusting. Everyone falls into this trap. Everyone wants to imitate.

Me: How do you prevent the tourist trap?

Tare: There is big difference between traveling and tourism. Either you are a tourist or you are a traveler. If you are a traveler, you go to a place for the experience, to enrich yourself. Unfortunately, in the last half of the 20th century, mass tourism happened. In mass tourism, no one goes to eat local food, to meet local people or local tribes. Now what you do, you go, you stay in the same Sheraton hotel. Tourism and traveling are different concepts.

Me: Interesting statement from a man who said tourism could be the driver for economic development, but you are right. Everywhere I go, I see the same block signs with the city name, the same kiosks, the same food trucks… those Christmas kiosks out there? I just saw the same concept in Vienna, but on a larger scale.

Tare: I’m a romantic. I know it’s not going to happen, that we only get travelers here. Even so, we have to be careful in not making the same mistakes with tourism as other countries. Mass tourism has destroyed Greece, it has destroyed many cities, and it will destroy here as well.

Me: How do you stop mass tourism from destroying a country and how do you get travelers to come?

Tare: There are not that many travelers left. That is why we have to focus on tourism. The challenge is how to improve the tourism experience. People who go somewhere without understanding where they are, they are tourists—it’s not done in the traveling sense. There’s no spiritual experience. People in Michigan can go to Florida and then go to Europe, and they’ll have no idea they’ve left the USA. They travel in a bubble. They pay with the same Visa, stay at a Sheraton, eat at a McDonald’s. They are attached to it because it is safe, it is like home. How did it get this way? It is the centralization created by mass tourism.

Mass tourism has destroyed the environment, the culture. It is not easy to do it [travel] right. I like the Scandinavian model: fewer people, better quality.

Me: Wait, Iceland is drowning in tourists. They went with a cheap airfare strategy, and they are getting many, many tourists.

Tare: Norway is holding out for fewer [but higher quality] people. With cheap travel, you get hordes of people. These people still think they are in England when they visit Greece, for example. They drink the same beer, they watch the same football matches.
From Rachael Weiss' Me, Myself & Prague (2008)
They don’t manage to get the experience. Tourism is corrupting the soul, destroying the environment. It is very important to create a balance. You cannot sell a country because it is cheap. You cannot say, “Come to my country because it is cheap. Cheap means sh*t.”

Me: But one of the reasons we have “tourism” is because people, especially young people, can only afford to visit a place for two or three days. The more expensive a place, the fewer days most people can stay.

Tare: I’ve stayed in tents, I’ve hitchhiked. I had 60 bucks in my pocket and I visited 5 countries. You have to promote a country as a niche experience. Go for the experience—who cares what is the next destination? I once took a bus in Iran for 10 hours and ended up somewhere I didn’t know. I woke up the next morning and had no idea where I was. Nobody spoke English but I was fine. They thought I was American, but I was not. They are very pro-American, by the way. Turns out I was near a mine and had slept with local workers all night. 

Me: When was this? [Expecting it to be when he was much younger.]

Tare: 7 years ago. Take the bus and go somewhere. Have you ever been on a Greyhound in the U.S.? I don’t use apps. I just go wherever.

Me: Yes, but I grew up without much disposable income. I wouldn’t recommend Greyhound to anyone coming to California because the experience with each station varies greatly, and America is too spread out to make travel solely by buses viable for first-time travelers. Once the bus drops you off, you usually can’t walk somewhere. It’s not like Europe, which is much more compact. We have not invested in infrastructure in America. The buses are often from 20 or 30 years ago.

Tare: Ok.

On Politics

Me: Do you think Albania should continue to be part of NATO?

Tare: I think if you join the club, you have to pay. You can’t even join a book club these days without paying a membership fee.

Me: I saw Basha, the opposition leader, speaking against the incumbent politician on TV, and it was a spirited discussion. It makes me optimistic about Albania, to see that kind of peaceful opposition. Basha is young and he seems to have good ideas.

Tare: Young? His ideas are old.

Me: Wait, isn’t Lulzim Basha the younger politician [from Democratic Party of Albania, in the opposition since 2013], and Edi Rama the older incumbent [and current Prime Minister, affiliated with the Socialist Party]?

Tare: [Sighs] You are right—Basha is the younger one. He has a young face, but his ideas are old. This is the problem with TV—it projects false perceptions, even unintentionally.

Me: What has Basha or the opposition done that you disagree with?

Tare: They had power for eight years. People are not stupid. They see politicians with fancy cars, fancy watches, and these politicians do not have other jobs.

Me: I notice wherever I go, I get a receipt for services immediately, which includes the VAT. Is that new?

Tare: The law was there 20 years ago, but compliance began only 3 years ago. VAT has finally become standard. Since three years ago, we [the current majority] have made things much tighter.

Me: From what I’ve heard, power outages are a big problem here. Even coming to the city center from the airport, all the street lights were off.

Tare: Yes, I know this issue. The municipality is responsible for the power. It was not receiving sufficient funding.

Me: But this is happening under your party.

Tare: Yes, but it will be fixed. Electricity is provided through a public-private entity. It was an issue with collecting taxes and getting it to the municipality. Now that we are actively collecting taxes, we can better fund infrastructure. The problem is that the local entity is not receiving the taxes. This is a local issue where the taxes are being collected by the federal entity but not making its way down to the local entity efficiently.

Me: How did you change the culture with respect to VAT and other issues?

Tare: Let me give you an example. A while ago, I went with a representative to see the process for issuing birth and death certificates. There was a long line of people. When you reached the front of the kiosk, you gave your money to an outstretched hand, and then in a few weeks, you’d return get your certificate. The representative told me that even if he is the most honest person, he cannot fix this [i.e., he could not stop corruption from happening eventually].

So the former mayor of Albania set up an office. It was a nice environment, and employees dressed well. We made sure the process was a one-stop shop with online facilities, online payment, and so on. The lines disappeared, and the process is now an excellent statement that proper service can improve the citizen’s life. The overall idea is that we must provide better service.

This place? [motions around the Bazaar we are sitting in.] It used to be a dump. My kids came here recently and said it is much nicer now. People are not stupid. They notice changes. They notice better service. 

Me: What is the Albanian Dream?

Tare: We are a small country. We have lots of energy here, and we need to channel the energy properly. We are now two generations away from Communism [over 25 years have passed since the fall of Communism in Albania]. We need to build technology. How did Malaysia and Singapore do it? The key is to channel the energy we have into proper outlets, and once we do that, we can see what the young citizens want.

Me: Do you want foreign capital?

Tare: We are actively trying to attract foreign capital outside of tourism, but we are a small market, and it is not easy.

Me: What is the role of public sector in attracting capital and businesses?

Tare: [chuckles] We don’t have one now. We see the private sector going after opportunities on its own.

On Basketball

Me: What sports did you play?

Tare: I played basketball. I was a forward and played both small and power positions. I played for Albania’s national team.

Me: What was that like in the old days, playing for the national team?

Tare: You will not understand those days. A person who hasn’t lived under Communism cannot fully understand, even if I explain it. My wife, who is from Michigan, even she does not understand when I tell her about life under Communism. You cannot understand unless you were there.

Me: I’m more optimistic than you on this issue. Give it a shot.

Tare: [sighs] It was a big deal for us. Sports are a big deal for a country. The state took care of you as much as they could. They looked after you. We grew up with sports. The Russians can understand me immediately but not Americans. The upbringing is so different.

Me: We have problems now in America with parents pressuring their children to compete and hiring private coaches, leading to burned-out kids.

Tare: The Communist system [modeled on the Soviet system] was genius in creating structure. Take away the ideology, take away the propaganda, and leave just the basics—what they did here was genius. [Note: comment refers only to the specific system created by the Communists for different parts of life, i.e., art, culture, sport, community base, etc.]

Each school had a chain system—a regular academic school attached to another school that specialized in one particular sport or activity. [Note: this sounds similar to some charter schools in the U.S., especially in Las Vegas.] This meant that one school specialized in basketball, another school specialized in another sport. A lot of schools were at different levels and in a natural way.

Me: So I actually know a little bit about this because I admire perhaps the greatest Soviet/Lithuanian basketball player of all time, Arvydas Sabonis. He talked about this system before.

Tare: My dad was an athlete, too, so of course he directed me into sports. They direct you, but the chain was natural. I didn’t feel pressure. You didn’t pay anything [which is different from the United States, where expensive private coaches are becoming more common]. We had a Pioneers Club, sometimes called the House of Pioneers. You go there and you learn the basics. It could be sports, it could be handicrafts. It was a house where you discovered talents and promoted them.

People [today] don’t meet anymore in a coordinated way that builds community. The Communists had meetings for propaganda purposes, but take away the propaganda, and there was more community building. Now, TV has taken over. People sit in their houses and don’t go out. People in the same neighborhood don’t meet each other anymore in a substantive way. Before, under Communism, for propaganda reasons, every weekend, we would all meet together. For example, a cultural center for a specific region, every weekend, would take equipment into the mountains by mules and show a movie. 

[Note: I didn’t follow until I realized that the majority of people in Albania, even today, live in villages or the mountains. The Communists, when they were in charge, had to contend with bringing together vast stretches of people who didn’t necessarily have much in common and who didn’t even have access to TV, much less the internet. How do you unite a people who lack basic access to information or what their government is doing for them? It is difficult to imagine what it was like in the past when you are in a major city filled with young people, but Tare sheds light into how sports was used to unite an entire nation, and why it was so important for the Soviets/Communists to win, especially in the Olympics. This also explains why the Soviet Union kept its star athletes like Sabonis for so long rather than allow them to earn much more money abroad.]

They [the Communists] would take equipment to the mountain every week. People lived in the mountains, so they don’t know what is going on. The government was bringing movies up to the mountains. Yes, it was a part of propaganda, but what I’ve discovered now is that apart from propaganda, it was the best way for people to come together and talk. Everyone now stays home and watches TV. They’re more isolated than they used to be! Today, Albania gives concerts in the villages. 60% of Albanians still live in villages or mountains. We have brought in violinists from China and we hold similar events to bring people together.  

In the past, people were more spread out, but social interaction and collaboration was not based on money. Despite the propaganda, the Soviet Union’s Communist system, which was copied by many countries, attracted talent and brought people together in a natural way.

Me: What are your projects here in Albania?

Tare: First, we are building an underwater museum. People can go down into the water and breathe through diving equipment. There’s already one in Mexico. Second, we are also connecting coastline and mountain areas so people can experience remote areas.

Me: Isn’t that extremely difficult to do? You have to pave new roads, use cement…

Tare: No, in the old days people used paths. The paths are there. We need to put signs up, use navigation apps, and work with what we have so people can stay with villagers. There’s an article in WaPo about this project. [Link: http://invest-in-albania.org/washington-post-writes-mountain-tourism-albania/]

2007-2008 was the end of the era of the travelers in Albania. Mass tourism took over after 2008. The private sector has been aggressive in promoting fairs and other events. Of course, the state puts money in advertisements, but not as much as the private sector’s efforts. The difficulty is implementing concepts. The word sustainable is used everywhere, but how sustainable is it really?

Me: Can tourism promote economic development, especially in rural areas?

Tare: Yes, but it needs experienced guides. It takes time, it takes a special model. Right now, the model is this: whoever has the money wants to make the returns.

I have three kids that need to be picked up from school. I have to go now.

Me: Thank you.

Disclosures: I wanted to take Mr. Tare to a seafood restaurant next to the café, and we went to the quieter location to talk, but he only eats fruits and vegetables. I gave him some tea from a pot I’d ordered for myself and the only “benefit” to Tare was a glass of still water. Mr. Tare is a man intent on changing Albania’s perception in the world, and the last politician I’d expect to be caught in any corruption scandal.