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A ‘Dear John’ letter from New England

I was told that the golden rule of thumb for understanding Argentina imparted by the Foreign Office to all its diplomats heading out here was: ‘Nothing in Argentina is ever as good or as bad as anybody says it is.’

Saturday 17 November, 2018
A ‘Dear John’ letter from New England
A ‘Dear John’ letter from New England Foto:Cedoc

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All things (and not just all good things, as so often said) come to an end. For the 64th week running now I’ve had my regular midweek email exchange with the New England economist Dr Hale so this might seem the time to sing “When I’m 64” by the Beatles yet, even if I may be reading between the lines, there is a je ne sais quoi about his latest email which makes me think I should instead be singing “This could be the last time” from the Rolling Stones. Read on and see for yourself:

“Much as I hate to quote Donald Trump, I’m afraid the time has come to use his trademark phrase: ‘You’re fired!’ You try hard and are often interesting but you’re simply not the professional opinion I’ve been craving for so long and have at last found. My new touchstone for Argentina meets all of my three main criteria. Firstly, professional expertise in abundance and secondly, a sufficient command of English – not a native speaker like yourself but his English mostly stems from a spell of New England education (and not Old England like yours). Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, he comes absolutely free (which was always your saving grace) – as you might imagine, no New England academic salary could possibly stretch to having paid consultants in 200 countries around the world (it’s not as if I were one of the Koch brothers). We’ve worked out a barter arrangement whereby we exchange information and data access to our mutual advantage, some of it related to the upcoming G20 – and hence the urgency of this communication. I’m very likely coming to Buenos Aires for the G20 and I do not want to risk being caught playing two strings on the same violin – what if you bump into each other? As they might say in the divorce courts, we’ve actually been seeing each other for several weeks already – he likes to Skype, you understand – but I didn’t have the heart to tell you until now.

“I’m not going to identify my new source because should you wish to continue these briefings (and I really cannot see why since I never paid you a cent), Argentine economists are such an insanely jealous, even cannibalistic bunch that you would have no problem lining up rivals only too willing to send me savage character assassinations in order to destroy his credibility in my eyes. One point I want to clarify is that your irritating habit of publishing our correspondence was never the issue here – I also found it quite flattering. In a ‘kinder, gentler’ spirit (to quote another Republican president, the older George Bush), I would like to thank you for all your efforts over the past 14 months and to wish you a Merry Christmas, Happy New Year, the best for the future and all the rest of it.

“Finally, since my famous ancestor Nathan Hale is almost exclusively famous for his last words: ‘I only regret that I have but one life to lose for my country,’ it seems only fair to ask you now – do you have any last words?”

My reply:

“Well, since we seem to be in the business of quoting the last words of American revolutionary heroes from the War of Independence, I’ll give you some more from another patriot, also from New England – Vermont’s Ethan Allen of Green Mountain Boys fame. Upon his deathbed a chaplain murmured to him: ‘The angels are waiting for you, my General,’ to which he peevishly retorted: ‘Well, let them wait,’ expiring shortly afterwards – didn’t want to go. So if you want my last words, you can have them but (true to the spirit of Ethan Allen) I’m going to make you wait a while.

“The only trouble will be to find something still left to say. For the first time your email asks no questions about the week’s economic news. I could tell you: ‘Habemus budget’ but presumably your new buddy will be giving you much better number-crunching on all the twists and turns of the taxation which was the price of the white smoke.

“Instead of specific information on the immediate past, I can thus only offer you some general advice for the future as a whole. Something from my baby steps on the road which led to my once being considered somebody worth consulting (which I also found flattering). Almost on my first contact with the British Embassy here (when it was still under the Swiss flag), I was told that the golden rule of thumb for understanding Argentina imparted by the Foreign Office to all its diplomats heading out here was: ‘Nothing in Argentina is ever as good or as bad as anybody says it is.’ More than three decades later I still find that standpoint as valid as ever – whether applied to convertibility, the commodity boom earlier this century or this year’s crisis (frequently compared to the 2001-2002 meltdown, which I find a bit of a stretch.

“My other parting advice (which in many ways stems from the above) would be to warn you against Argentine exceptionalism. The only real basis for this is Argentina being an almost unique case of reverse evolution in the 20th century – even if not as rich a century ago nor so poor now as commonly presented. This exceptionalism finds expression alike in an exaggerated superiority complex (‘too rich to fail’) or an equally extreme inferiority complex – that Argentina’s political leadership is uniquely incompetent when politicians are pretty much equally awful everywhere (not least your Donald Trump) and the real failing here is lacking a professional civil service. But I suppose being G20 without being a Top 20 economy (South Africa is the only other case in point) might be exceptionalism of a sort.

“Finally, if you want my last words, I’ll give you one of the oldest clichés of them all – you cannot fire me because I quit.”

I may or may not be returning to this space next year but not, it would seem, Dr Hale – he has already sent me a reply asking: “What part of my email did you not understand?” I’ll be around at the newspaper for the rest of the month with my focus very much on the G20 but then dropping out of circulation until the first week of 2019. It only remains to thank readers for their interest and wish them the best possible closure for a difficult 2018.

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