7 min read

Witness to economic growth

I was asked by one of my children, what gift I wanted. Here is my reply:

Dear Child,

If you ever want to pleasantly surprise me with a gift, please consider getting me a donkey. Yes, I know, we live on a horse farm and we have horses, but horses are not the same as a donkey. You see, when I was a young child, everybody I knew had a donkey, except us. We, instead, had a bicycle. Yes, it was fun to get rides on my father’s big bicycle, and that bicycle could carry almost as much as a donkey, go much faster, go on without food or water, etc. but it was not the same. All my friends were getting long rides on the family donkey, while on the way to the farming fields outside the village and I was not! Just about everybody in the village was a farmer or a shepherd.

You see, I consider myself lucky that I got to experience, perhaps the last ten years of life as Homer describes it in the Iliad and the Odyssey. And Homer lived sometime in the 8th century BC, roughly 2800 years ago.

The shepherds took the animals out to the fields, and to make time pass, they would play their hand-made flutes for hours and hours. It was not until the time I was 12 or so, that the pocket radios became available and those shepherds, one at a time, switched to listening to music on the radio, instead of playing the flute.

And funny enough those pocket radios were not even called radios. People, in my part of the world, called them “transistors”. The invention of semi-conducting transistors was what made portable radios possible. Before that, radios required tubes, which not only were large but required a lot of electricity. Just to compare, those early pocket radios had 2 transistors in them whereas the iPhone 11 Pro has 8.5 billion of them!

So, those transistors, in every sense of the word, transitioned humanity from a bucolic life to one where technology is everywhere. But the rapid and sloppy economic growth that came with it, has poisoned our Earth.

My personal story reflects that economic growth. At the same time that those pocket radios appeared, my father organized fellow farmers, they pooled small sums of money together, drilled for water, bought a large electric water pump to get the water to the surface and installed a distribution network to each member’s field (and did all that without any government subsidies). A few years later, my father traded in his bicycle for a small pick-up truck and was able to increase his farming activities and his revenues. He bought me my first watch when I was 15 (an analog watch with 17 “jewels” – those “jewels” were very tiny diamonds or something similar that made the many gears of the watch less prone to friction and more accurate), and bought me my first digital calculator when I was 16.

Funny enough, soon enough, you are going to be telling a similar story, because we are now witnessing the transition from analog cars to digital cars. In other words, in 10 to 15 years, electric cars will replace all new internal combustion engine cars.

This change will happen not because everybody is going to become an environmentalist and vote with their money (practice ethical consumerism), but rather competing companies will bring the prices down and the functionality up, because they would not have to assemble thousands of pieces together and make sure that those metal parts can constantly stand temperatures of 1500 to 2500 degrees centigrade, which is what happens when you have thousands of controlled explosions per minute. In contrast, electric cars have very few moving parts and do not have to deal with such extreme temperatures.

Would you for example, buy an analog TV today? You would not even accept one for free. (They are heavy and large, the quality is visibly 100 times less than any digital flat TV today, it needs a lot of electricity, etc.), So, I believe in ten years it will be as unthinkable to buy an analog (internal combustion) car.

But change does not happen overnight. You see, change is like a ladder. Some people need to build the ladder and some people need to make use of it. In other words, a society needs the teachers, the thinkers and the scientists that will design the change, and the people that will make use of that change – otherwise if nobody makes use of it, it is as if it does not exist. And this process needs to repeat thousands of times, so new ladders continuously take us to a higher level.

In my case, because I observed things from their early stages, it was easier to identify those “ladders”. Yes, because of your grandfather’s efforts and community organizing, farmers were able to water their fields on demand. But it did not stop there.

The government sent to the village a lending library housed in a bus, once every second Sunday (but unfortunately it had a limit of 3 books per person – that was a real problem for me, because I would read my 3 books by Wednesday, and I would count the days to the library’s next visit).

We also had a government dentist come in another bus with a mobile dental unit and inspect and fix teeth of students at the elementary school. There is even a video of that bus and major government people visiting my school. I am the boy with the dark sweater and bowed legs, 13 seconds into the video!

Then better roads were built, and farmers were able to take the bus to the city nearby and sell their produce. This brought more money into the community. I do still remember when our very first washing machine was delivered. I then bought my first tape recorder, and then during my high school years (where I took the bus to the city every school day) I became a frequent visitor to a store selling electronic components (items like diodes, transistors, resistances) and I started making my own radio transmitters and receivers. It was a real thrill to be able to talk to my friends via those early gadgets. Then I lucked out that almost all of my high school classmates were from families that lived in the city and their parents knew a lot more about college admissions, what exams to take, etc., You may laugh at me, but for many years I thought Columbia University was in England (and not in New York). I would overhear other students talk about such places and to me it was like a foreign language. I had very little idea of what was going on. But some kind relatives in the city, took me in for my last year in high school, and I managed to take afternoon private group lessons for the British GGE exams, in the equivalent for Calculus I and II.

And here is the incredible part of my story. When people ask me how I met you mother, I tell them that I have Margaret Thatcher, the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, to thank! This is because my plan was to go to England for college, but it was the second year that Thatcher was Prime Minister, and for that year, she decided to get rid of foreign students by essentially increasing the annual fees tenfold. So, the very last minute I went to the US, where I eventually made it to Columbia University and later on, I met your mother while she was at the NYU Medical School, which is also in New York City. So, I went from being a barefoot boy in a small village (ok, I was barefoot in the summer because I liked being barefoot and not because we could not afford shoes!) to being a student at a top Ivy League University, to working on Wall Street, and to marrying a beautiful American “princess”! After that, nothing seems impossible!

But I also witnessed environmental disasters. We went from having no garbage in the village to producing tons of garbage per week (ultimately the ugly side of consumerism). Also, many large birds I used to see as a child are no longer around. But worse of all, my father died earlier than expected because he got a type of lung cancer related to spraying pesticides. He was never a smoker, he avoided smoky places and never allowed anybody to smoke in the house but did not wear a mask and other protective gear while applying pesticides. He had to work very hard, especially during the years I and my younger siblings were all in US colleges, to keep up with expenses. His specialty was oranges and scallions. My parents would spend all day pulling scallions from their fields and then stay up until midnight arranging them into bunches for the market the next day. Whenever I saw scallions at a fruit stand in New York, I would point to them and tell my friends that this is what was putting me through college.

You see your grandfather was in love with learning. He only finished elementary school. He was the best student in his class, but going to high school then, it was like going to an expensive college now, and his father did not have the money to send him away to high school – and no high school was nearby. He did not take that lightly – he slept on the roof for a week but his father, who never went to school, did not see the value of spending money, that really did not have, to send him away to continue his education. But my father kept up with his education by reading and loving books. I remember, every September when I would get my textbooks from the government during my high school years, he would take my textbooks to a specialist to bind them with hard covers… and I still have those books.

The issue for your generation is not to allow economic growth to head in every direction possible, but to guide that growth by continuously “voting” with your actions and purchases. The real way to “stick it” to the “system” is to not borrow a lot of money for housing, to never buy a new gasoline car, and to buy an electric car, the first chance you get.

As when you get me that donkey, I promise to act surprised. But I can tell you from now, the tears of joy are going to be real. I really want a donkey – or maybe it is not the donkey I want but the smell of one… The village had a smell – a nice aroma, manure from goats, sheep and donkeys… and that smell of a donkey will take me right back to my childhood!

Love you, dad