I don't remember who was host the first time Adrian and I sat together at the same table, but after the usual nods and comments about the food and the weather, we began a conversation which we both found interesting, so it continued whenever we both happened to be there at the same time. Way back then, I usually ate lunch in a vegetarian restaurant in downtown Buenos Aires. It's still there – self-service and self-seating – which means you could and still can sit wherever a seat is available, sort of like in Europe. In Switzerland and Germany if a seat is available in someone else's table, you can ask “Ist hier frei?” and they'll nod, unless they're waiting for someone, and you sit there and eat in silence if both prefer, which is usually the case, or start a conversation.
Although Adrian spoke very little about himself, I at least learned that he lived in San Luis – an Argentine province – and came to Buenos Aires only occasionally for untranslatable “trámites” [procedures]. I suppose I liked to talk about myself more than he did, so, when he asked, I said, over dessert, not verbatim, but basically:
I was born in Argentina and live here again now after college in the United States and many years there and in Europe. I have been able to observe (with my eyes only half open, at most) cultural, economic and political conditions in the countries I have lived in: Argentina, Switzerland, Germany and the United States, and in many other countries (with eyes mostly closed) due to my employment in the airline industry.
(Don't worry, this isn't an autobiography, but I have to establish some kind of credential, albeit a weak one, not being an economist, political scientist, philosopher, or a doctor of anything.)
What I have seen through eyes in varying degrees of openness is that the great majority of the world's human population lives in poverty. The so-called middle class, meaning neither poor nor rich, is squeezed between the two poles. And the rich – filthy rich, you might say – own most of the world's resources and production, which does not mean that they actually produce the resources, they merely own them. Others do the actual work. Something is going on and that something is wrong and has been since the industrial revolution, when it became possible to produce all kinds of things quickly and more or less efficiently, and a class of so-called capitalists, entrepreneurs, were able to replace the landowners as the new rulers.
The distribution of wealth is unjust, condemning many millions of the world's people to poverty, ignorance, addictions, violence and, often, crime. And the others? Are they the bad guys? Well, yes, but they weren't born bad. And they might not even be bad, only their behavior is, because they think they have no choice. How are they going to feed their families, buy that new car, pay off that mortgage?
I know, I know: so what else is new? Okay, I'll get to the point, or close to it. So the system, which embraces the good, the bad and the in-betweens, is the problem. I only want to elucidate a part of the problem, then suggest a way to solve it, or, rather, listen to Adrian's way.
He was about my age, somewhat shorter, with dark skin, which could have come from Southern Europe, the Middle East, Africa or American Indian – in other words, anywhere. He always wore jeans and a gray jacket and sneakers. I hoped he had more of them, because they seemed to be always the same ones. I was always in my business uniform, you know, suit and tie. So we presented a physical contrast in that respect. I don't remember how or when the conversations turned toward spirituality and reincarnation, but they certainly did. At the time I was new to Anthroposophy and Waldorf education (for my children) and when I mentioned how I was disappointed by the local Argentine Anthroposophical Society, I was surprised that Adrian knew about Rudolf Steiner, had even read some of his books. He said it was natural that I was disappointed because when a spiritual leader, an initiate, dies, the organization he built begins a process of inevitable decadence. I was thinking that over when he said, “Look at Christianity.”
He also said that Rudolf Steiner was a great initiate, but that since he – Adrian – knew no German and his English was poor, as was he, he said with a grin, his access to literature about Anthroposophy – Steiner's subject – was limited to Spanish. Nevertheless, he knew that what Steiner said was true. He didn't say how he knew, but for some reason I believed he did know. In fact, with time I became convinced that Adrian was, himself, an initiate. Once I asked him what the best path to spiritual knowledge was. He thought for a while, then said, “pureza” [purity]. Surprised, I wanted to know what kind of purity he meant. Sexual purity, for example, meaning chastity?
He smiled and said, “Your question reminds me of St. Augustine's remark: Lord, make me pure, but not yet.”Not long afterward he had to return to San Luis, where some people were expecting him. He didn't say what people or why. He said something unrelated right away in order, I suspect, to change the subject before I could ask.
Not too long thereafter things got hairy in Argentina, downright dangerous for airline managers in fact, with a local leftist group trying to emulate Che Guevara's (an Argentine, after all), and Fidel's success in Cuba. So I was not unhappy when I was transferred to a Swiss heaven, Zurich, from what was becoming an Argentine hell, Buenos Aires.
Twelve years later, after a vicious military dictatorship had succumbed to its own idiocy in invading the Falkland Islands and ignominiously losing the ensuing war to Great Britain, l was transferred back to Buenos Aires – with a bit of manipulation by yours truly.
Many years still later, after I had retired from my day-job and was dedicated to writing fiction and translating, I walked late one day into the vegetarian restaurant hoping there was still food left and saw Adrian seated at a table in the back, alone, reading a book.
“Hola, Adrian”, I said. “Permiso?” [May I?] He nodded without looking up until he had finished a sentence. He didn't seem at all surprised to see me, just smiled and said “Of course, Roberto”, as though he had been expecting me and decades hadn’t passed since we had last met or heard from each other.
I had had ample time to think about all the things he'd said (not all repeated here now) and had long since concluded that he was right about organizations declining once their founders were gone. Christianity is a great example. The Roman Catholic Church may have started out as St. Paul's “Christian Community”, but soon declined into a decadent quasi-dictatorship. So why should the Anthroposophical Society be an exception to the rule, although certainly not to the degree of the RC Church and some others? I was very pleased to see Adrian again and fully intended to mine his mind for more gems of wisdom.
He looked around, apparently just noticing that we were among the few clients left. “Aren't you eating”? he asked. When I saw him, I had gone directly to his table without selecting food from the serving table. “Actually, I'm not very hungry, had a late breakfast. I'll pick up an empanada on the way out.”
“Good idea,” Adrian said. “The people working here must clean up and eat themselves.” Then, finally, he stood up and embraced me. “I'm very glad to see you again, Roberto. Especially today, for I'll be leaving Buenos Aires in about an hour and don't know when... or even if ... I'll be back.”
“To San Luis?”
“Yes, and then to Mendoza.” He sighed. “I'm getting kind of old for travel.” I understood that well, for we were about the same age. So when he added, “Let's walk over to the Plaza de Mayo, where we can converse in peace,” I readily agreed. I bought two delicious vegetarian empanadas, which the employee put into a little box as we left.
The Plaza de Mayo is directly in front of the Casa Rosada, Argentina's White House, but pink. “Pink House” sounds kind of silly, like pink eye, in English, but in Spanish it's melodious and politically attractive. At that time, the “official” poverty rate in Argentina was about 40%, meaning that in reality it was closer to 50%. And the story was similar in other Central and South American countries – or worse. And let's not mention Africa or large parts of Asia. These figures were on the front page of the newspaper I had under my arm. Adrian commented that La Nación was quite right-wing, but at least it informs as well as a mainstream periodical can, and asked to see it. We sat on a bench as he leafed through it, and handed it back. “That's a lot of poor people,” he said. “The government seems not to be able to do anything about it and the corporations couldn't even if they wanted to, which they don't, because their only motivation is profit. The individuals in management might wish to do something really positive about poverty, but they cannot. Their organization must be profitable or they will join the ranks of the poor. Unless they're St. Francis, who wouldn't care.”
“What do you think of Marxism, Adrian? Karl Marx criticized capitalism harshly, but then capitalism was harsher those days.”
Adrian fished a leather pouch from one pocket and a pipe from another. “Do you mind?” he asked before beginning the ritual of filling it with tobacco.
“Not at all,” I answered. “In fact, I used to smoke a pipe myself, but had to give it up.”
“Really? A pipe is not nearly as bad for your health as cigarettes.”
“I know, but you see, I'm a writer and I work indoors, where the smoke rose directly from the bowl of the pipe and bothered my eyes.”
He had by then finished the ritual, lighted up and said “Karl Marx was, I think, a tragic figure.”
So I knew that he had been thinking about my question. “In what way?”
“His critique of capitalism was, in its way, a work of genius. And it attracted and convinced so many people, not the working class to whom it was addressed, but the intelligentsia. Then, however, what was his solution? He wanted to arrive at anarchism, which is no government, and the way to do so, according to him, was to create a 'dictatorship of the proletariat'. What a devilish, contradictory, senseless concept: In order to have nothing, one must create an abundance of its opposite.”
“It didn't work,” I offered.
“Of course not. The result was the Soviet Union, an all-embracing economic, political dictatorship. Did you know that your Rudolf Steiner had a much better solution.”
“Do you mean that threefold society idea”?
“Yes. Do you know it?”
“More or less,” I said. “I read his book about it. Basic Issues of the Social Question. It's out of date, but the basic idea is there.”
“And what do you think of it?” Adrian asked.
“The basic idea? Brilliant. But, well, it's practically unknown outside of anthroposophical circles, so there's not much chance of it being implemented.”
“You're right about that,” Adrian agreed. “You may not know that Rudolf Steiner was an anarchist...”
“No, I didn't.”
“...when he was young.” His pipe had gone out. He checked the level of unburnt tobacco, shrugged and relighted it with a giant-sized matchstick, and continued. “Well, he must have thought that if there's no state – the goal of anarchism – who's to prevent capitalism from taking over the world completely?”
“Isn't that what's happening right now?”
“Not entirely. There are anti-trust laws, after all.”
He finally knocked the ashes from his pipe and put it away in some inner pocket. “Not entirely. You could call them ineffective, as you could environmental protection laws. But they do exist and do have an insufficient but real value, depending on the country. Now more than in Steiner's time. So he must have – or would have, if you prefer – decided that the state – the democratic state, by the way – must exist in order to control the producers of goods, the corporations. But the state itself should not, as Marx preached, produce the goods itself. Rather, the state should be limited to the rights sphere.”
“And the so-called free market?” I asked.
“Doesn't exist. The free markets are run by capital, by the producers. Steiner foresaw economic associations of producers, consumers and distributors.”
“But he didn't say how they would work.”
Adrian sighed. “It's a complicated subject and we don't really have time. My bus leaves soon, and I want to get to the problem of poverty before I go to the terminal. Shall we start walking in that direction?”
“Okay, let's go.” I stood up as well and we began to walk, slowly, toward the bus station.
“Have you heard of the Universal Basic Income?”
“Sure. Nothing new about that. I remember reading that they tried a pilot program in Finland, but only for the unemployed. And in Switzerland a law was presented in their congress for 2,500 Swiss francs for everyone. It lost of course, but the promoters were encouraged because twenty-five percent voted in favor. Nothing happened of course."
"Isn't it ironic that it was taken seriously by the two countries that least need it?” Adrian said. "There's nothing new about the idea,” he agreed, “but I'm adding a new wrinkle. Let's give everyone, every individual citizen or legal resident of a country – Argentina, for example – an amount of purchasing power equivalent to, say, US$500 at the official exchange rate, which today would be about 50,000 pesos. An individual could live, barely, on 50,000 pesos. A typical family of four – two adults, two children, would receive 150,000 pesos (50,000 apiece for the two adults and half that for each child under 18.) They could then at least live as human beings.”
I nodded, still wondering what was new.
“But, and here's my new wrinkle,” Adrian went on, more animated now, “instead of simply giving people cash, it should be credited to a debit card issued for this purpose only, and the full amount must be spent within thirty days. What is left in the account after thirty days is zero, void. This literally forces the card holder to spend all of it within one month, thereby giving the economy a huge shot in the arm.”
“Yeah”, I objected, “a shot so big that there won't be enough things to buy with all that money, so the things – products I should say – would become much more expensive. Economists, exchange dealers, corporations, stock markets, etc., in other words almost everyone thinks that inflation is caused by too much money chasing too few products. The market can't digest so much fat, so it rebels. It's called overheating the market.”
“Good point”, Adrian said, “thanks.” He stopped walking and grabbed my arm, so I had no choice but to stop walking as well and look at him. He had become excited, as though he had just received a new inspiration. “Maybe we should introduce the system gradually, like 10,000 pesos the first month or months, or even 5,000. Yes, that's ten percent, much better, then gradually increasing till we're at 50,000.”
“Only 5,000 thousand pesos, for how long?”
“As long as it takes until the market is no longer overheated, merely comfortably growing.”
“There are other objections, Adrian,” I objected.
“Aren't there always?”
“For example, people won't want to work anymore.”
“Well, I don't believe that's true, at least not for the great majority. Take that typical family already mentioned, who will have 150,000 pesos a month. Do they have to pay rent? Probably. Do they have debts? Probably. Will they be satisfied with that amount? I doubt it. If decent work is available at least one of them will want it, for otherwise, although they are no longer dirt-poor, hungry, they are still relatively poor and will want to improve.”
“What do you mean by decent work?”
“I mean they might not want to work in a slaughterhouse killing and cutting up beautiful beasts every day, for example.”
“I knew a guy once who worked in a slaughterhouse,” I said. “He was quite well paid, better than in an automobile factory, that is. He was an alcoholic.”
“That's not surprising. Our typical family would want nothing to do with it, unless they were paid a very large amount.”
“That would make meat expensive, even in Argentina.”
Adrian smiled. “Inflation in meat; good for vegetarianism. But perhaps one of them would want to study a more ethical profession, or even become an artist, a poet, a musician.”
“Hmm, that's what employers, big and small, will fear with this – may I call it Adrian's Way”
He laughed a deep, delicious sounding laugh, and said, “I'd be honored, but most people will ask: Who in hell is Adrian?”
“A mystery, and everyone loves a mystery.”
“Well, anyway, the experts could work out the details about the overheated or refreshingly cool economy. The most important thing is that many, even most people want it, and for that they will have to know about it. Look Roberto, there's no other solution.
“Still”, I insisted, “it seems most unlikely that it will ever be really implemented. There's just too much opposition and skepticism.”
“In a country where almost fifty percent of the population live in poverty and crime is rampant mostly because of that, there's no choice. By the way, did you know that in Argentina almost twelve million people now receive some kind of subsidy from the state?”
“Really? That's over a quarter of the population. How is it broken down? Do you know?”
“Not exactly, but if I remember well it consists mostly of subsidies for children and pensions for those who had not contributed to the social security pension fund during their working life. It's easy to find out the exact numbers. Added to that are the subsidies for electric and gas energy, and let us not forget the subsidies to transportation companies, mostly city buses.”
“And price controls?” I asked.
“Something that has been tried many times in many places and never works. All it causes are shortages of the price controlled products. Instead of giving subsidies and controlling prices, why not give the necessary money to consumers.”
“By means of a Universal Basic Income?”
“Of course. But the important thing is that all that huge expense will disappear once the UBI takes its place.”
“Sorry to change the subject,” I interrupted, “but there's so little time...”
“Wait, just one more thing, internationally, if I may. My son, who lives in Germany, told me this. In that wealthy land every family, rich or poor or in-between, receives 219 euros per month for every child. He has two children so receives 438 euros a month, tax free. He and his wife, who both work, don't really need it, but it comes in handy, he says. They donate a part of it to charity.”
“Wow. Sounds like the state wants to encourage the birth of children,” I said.
“Probably, the birth rate has been on a steady decline for some time. Now, what did you want to say?”
"I remember a long time ago you said that pureza is the path to extrasensory perception. And you didn't answer when I asked what you meant by that.”
“Bueno, I don't think I said exactly extrasensory perception, rather spiritual knowledge or something similar. Either way, there are three things you can do to improve your pureza.”
We were standing at the entrance to the bus terminal. Adrian opened the door and moved to enter.
“Wait, Adrian. What are they?”
He steps back, puts his hands on my shoulders and says: “One, become an expert in order to creatively but honestly reply to the objectors and doubters; two, write about the Universal Basic Income, spread the word; three, love thy neighbor as thyself – but, and above all: Know thyself!”
He steps into the terminal and, with ticket in hand, rushes to his bus, which is already boarding. A few minutes later, he waves to me from a window in the upper tier of the bus as it passes. I wave back, wondering if I'll ever see him again.