Back in France

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We’re back in France… but still ruminating on our long trip through North America. We began on the east coast of Canada and finished on Canada’s west coast, after looping through southern USA.

What did we learn from our trip?

The raw country is stunning. Magnificent. Beautiful. And mostly empty.

There, Americans have built a style of life that is alternately trashy and refined… exuberant and dull… appealing and incomprehensible.

We never understood why anyone would want to stop at Hog’s Restaurant (with a picture of a pig on the advertisement) in Aztec, New Mexico, for example. Nor why anyone would want to live in the typical American suburb. Nor how Americans could work so hard and have too little to show for it; they get poorer each year. They have a standard of living that few people in the world can afford — not even Americans themselves.

Americans are "a decent people caught up in an indecent conceit," we quote ourselves, finding no better reference.

They believe they are not subject to the ordinary laws of economics… or fair play. If any other country tried to spend so much, or live so far above its means, we would say it was headed for trouble. Americans forgive themselves; for they believe that they are blessed by such good fortune that they will never have to pay their debts.

Or imagine that Germany decided that "regime change" was what South Africa needed? Or that Morocco decided to attack Tunisia on the pretext that the Tunisians were up to something? We would find it unforgivably arrogant and unpardonably aggressive.

Yet we Americans pardon our own aggression, as well as our own extravagance. We are the guardians of the world’s peace, we believe, and are endowed by our Creator with some special duty to spend the world’s money as well as tell others what to do.

"For the first time in human history," wrote Michael A. Ledeen, "a singularly diverse people has been given the chance to experiment with a new kind of society, inhabited by a new kind of man, driven by a new kind of ethos…

"No longer impeded by our youthful weakness, we can continue our national mission beyond the boundaries of our national frontier… There is no one to stop us except ourselves."

We are surely up to the job.

"I came here after the war," said an old man we met in Los Angeles. "It was great. But it was different then. You could drive down the freeways at 50 mph. Now they’re all clogged up with cars.

"America was the land of opportunity. Well, maybe it still is the land of opportunity. I’m not sure. But if I were a young man again, I think I’d go to Russia or Brazil. They’re wide open."

"Even in difficult conditions, there are opportunities to make money [in Asia]," writes old friend Martin Spring:

Real estate "is a no-brainer." Tens of millions of people are moving from the rural areas to the cities every year, creating enormous demand for housing. What’s more, unlike in the manufacturing sectors, there is in other Asian countries no competition from China. In India, in particular, the property market is very underdeveloped, so there are "huge opportunities."

Tourism is Asia’s most promising growth industry. As the middle classes burgeon and become richer, they have the time and resources for leisure activities. Over the past five years, the number of Chinese holidaying abroad has doubled to 16 million. Marc Faber foresees up to 100 million Chinese visiting other Asian countries.

Commodities. When you have a nation that is industrializing rapidly, the need for natural resources explodes. China’s steel industry is already larger than those of Japan and America combined, while its share of the world’s copper demand has soared from 6% to 27% over a decade.

Asia’s oil consumption is likely to double, from 20 to 40 million barrels a day, over the next 10 years. That extra demand is equivalent to two-and-a-half Saudi Arabias.

Rising living standards will also generate exploding demand for food imports, especially from China, where agricultural production is declining. As an example of the potential, Faber says, Taiwan consumes 81 kg (180 lbs) of meat per person each year, compared to China’s 15 kg (35 lbs).

Services. The middle-class explosion will also generate fast-growing demand throughout developing Asia for financial services, advertising, distribution, health and personal care services, entertainment and media.

Local business giants will emerge to challenge the existing multinationals, just as happened in Japan during its "miracle" years and has been happening more recently in Korea.

This is not necessarily the right time to rush in, as the U.S. central bank has created a colossal worldwide bubble in Asia as much as elsewhere, and it’s conceivable that this bubble will burst this year or the next.

However, that should not undermine the long-term case for investing in Asian themes.

American growth has been driven by consumption, which has been artificially high because of the transitory phenomenon of cheap, abundant credit instead of growth in employment and earnings.

By contrast, Asian growth is being driven by industrialization and related development in China and India as dramatic as the transformation of the United States in the 19th century from a small colonial economy of 4 million people to the world’s largest economic power.

Bill Bonner [send him mail] is the author, with Addison Wiggin, of Financial Reckoning Day: Surviving the Soft Depression of The 21st Century.

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