Seattle’s Town Hall: Daniel Brook & Peter Blair Henry


A few weeks ago, I was listening to an NPR segment discussing Leopold somebody. Alright, I was half listening. The story teller mentioned that lectures were the entertainment back in the day. Instead of movies, Twitter, Facebook, T.V., etc. A light bulb went off. For as much as I love discussion, for the life of me, why had I not ever considered lectures as entertainment? I mean, it’s more listening than discussing while the lecture is happening but it spawns discussions. I like it when I don’t know something and then someone educates me on the thing I don’t know. It’s a very cool feeling.

I mean, not always because sometimes the ego gets in the way but in general it’s a ton of fun!

So I looked at Town Hall’s schedule. They had two speakers last Tuesday that I was very excited to hear. The first one was “Cities Where East Meets West & Past Becomes Future” with journalist Daniel Brook and “Third-World Lesson for First-World Growth” with Peter Blair Henry, an economist.

Daniel Brook is young. That was my first impression. I was amazed and impressed with this ambitious young man. It’s the kind of ambition that inspired me to reflect back on myself. Am I this focused or ambitious? A quarter of the year is over and no, I am dismayed to say no I have not been so focused or as ambitious as he is. Driven, sure.. but anyway, that’s another story. Thank you Daniel for inspiring me to hunker down on my own passion. He spoke about things I know, really, nothing about. In truth, I’ve never thought about Shanghai or St. Petersburg, two of four cities he is focused on his lecture and book. The other two are Mumbai and Dubai. That he was going to talk about Dubai interested me most. What a strange city, eh? It’s given a lot of flack for being a “Las Vegas” in the middle of nowhere. I’ve never been but I’m curious to see it one day. What’s it like? Is it really so arbitrary? Then there’s that fact I know: It is built by Indian slave labor.

But he said this: These cities have more in common with each other than with their native land.

To me, that was a striking thought. I hadn’t considered that before. He gives the example of Gandhi during his movement to bring Indians “back to India” rather than continuing to support British culture. Gandhi asks Indians to use only Indian cloths and clothing material. In Mumbai, then Bombay, this was a dilemma. They were used to fabrics from London and Paris. Mumbai was the most Westernized city, or more blended city, in India. It still boasts this though Chennai and Bangalore are becoming even more blended than before.

Brook says cities like Mumbai ask their locals, “Who are we?” What these cities have in common is that they are “disorienting” cities and purposefully so.

In Shanghai, 1920s Art Deco hotels look like Jazz Age skyscrapers from Manhattan magically airlifted to a city so far from New York that watches need not be reset-a.m. simply becomes p.m. In Mumbai, the 150-year-old Gothic university campus is an odd Oxford planed with palm trees, while Dubai’s twin Chryster Buildings make visitors wonder; Who thought if one fake Chrysler building was good, two would be even better?

The audience chuckled at this last question. What does inspire someone to copy, exactly, another building? Las Vegas is famous for this, yes? I’m not architect so I’m not sure the buildings in Vegas are exact replicas as a whole but I think parts of them are meant to be. As one commenter asked at the end of a session, “Why did they  not come up with their own ideas instead of copying?” I think we are all aware of the old saying, “Copying is the highest form of flattery.” This wasn’t the answer Brook gave. He said it is a short hand way of “catching up” [to the West] and promptly pointed out that copying does not mean they do not surpass. The Russian ballet, for example, or Russian novelists.

After the lecture, I was filling up my second cup of coffee when I heard him say to someone he was signing a book for, “I wish people wouldn’t dismiss [new or reinvented] cities for ‘not having culture.’ Every city begins this way.”

Well said, Mr. Brook. You changed my mind about a few opinions I had. Thank you.

*****

I love economics. It makes me want to throw my panties on the stage. I don’t really understand it but I enjoy the platform it gives me to understand why decisions in the world are made. Since the recession hit, I’ve been reading Mish’s Economic Analysis (blog), The Economist, etc. to better understand. I still feel like I don’t fully understand so I’m taking a Macroeconomics course via Coursera.org If you haven’t heard of this, you should go check out this amazing idea!

Henry was a clearly experienced and well versed speaker. A few  years ago, he was named the Dean of NYU’s Stern School of Business. Not only is he given this honor as the youngest Dean in their history but also he has worked on Obama’s Presidential Transition Team in it’s review on international lending agencies. It was safe to expect he’d have polished, pretty answers. Which he did but they were also more honest and humbled than I thought they would be. He began his talk with an example from his childhood and ultimately, the inspiration for becoming an economist.

He spoke about the conversations he and his grandmother used to have in his native Jamaica. She was a school teacher who was happy to answer many of his questions but the greatest lesson he learned from her was her giving. There was a woman who came to her gate one evening, asking for food. She had a big belly but was skinny and this puzzled Henry. His grandmother not only gave her food but sat down to speak with her for a while before Miss Mama, the hungry woman, went off for the evening. Henry recognizes that “teaching a man who to fish will feed him for days” but the giving of bread to Miss Mama was what his grandmother could for her. That was the extent of her resources.

He said there were three important ingredients third-world countries have done in the past few decades that first-world countries could learn from, now:

  1. Discipline. Which he defines as the “middle of the road” but than it does austerity or spending a lot of money.
  2. Clairty. A clear commitment to change in direction.
  3. Trust. Discipline and clarity build this third important ingredient. He also states that emerging markets don’t trust first world markets and this is an important quality missing from global growth.

He brought up an example from Barbados. A few decades ago, the value of Barbados’s currency was so low that they were advised by first-world countries to devalue their currency further in order to get back on their feet. Henry explained this is something that is suggested when they think a country isn’t willing to directly cut public and private sector wages. Because really, that’s what devaluing your currency is doing just without telling the people that that’s what is happening. Instead Barbados did exactly what they didn’t expect them to do. They cut wages across the board. People took to the streets, marching in protest.. It was a lot of people. A lot and their leader was very unpopular.. but it did get them back on their feet years later.

This example made me think of WWII. I really don’t know much about what happened but isn’t this idea of “shared sacrifice, shared profit” what we Americans used to preach as well? Isn’t that the principle we went by? That’s what this example reminded me of but I could be very mistaken and I’m naive about this area of history.

It was a pleasure to hear Henry speak and I was happy that I was in my second week of keeping a promise to myself: go hear people speak. Go to lectures every week.

T.V. is nice, for sure. I like watching shows to wind down but there is nothing so thrilling for me as a good discussion or a good lecturer or a good debate. Sexy, sexy.

For those interested, Mary Roach is speaking at Town Hall on April 8th! She wrote the book Stiff. Also, “A People’s Guide to the Federal Budget” on April 7th! Both only cost $5! See? Isn’t that amazing. I think it’s amazing 🙂

 

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