In our recent, almost month long tour of Southeast Asia from Hong Kong, through Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand and Singapore, TCR got an opportunity to see how we are viewed from another part of the world.
First, in this area of the world the focus is not on the U.S. and what it is up to, instead their focus is on more regional issues and even more specifically on "making money".
Economically, the countries vary significantly from average income in Hong Kong of over $20,000 a year to Vietnam with an average income of $800-1200 a year, to the even more poverty strickened Cambodia with average income of $250. This region goes from first-world to a mix of first and third world to third-world.
One thing is clear, the economic growth in Asia is astonishing. Of course, in many areas of Southeast Asia, nations started at a low level but are moving up quickly. This is also at least one area where the dollar still has good value.
Hong Kong, now part of China, is an amazing amalgam of enormous buildings and offices with a network of elevated sidewalks and so many design store outlets we lost count. In contrast, in Houston we have at the Galleria one of a number of designer stores and that's it for the city. Hong Kong faces the challenge of an enormous Filipino servant population on "contract" (so they are present legally). Though now a part of China, it has its own currency and immigration rules for movement to and from China. The military presence was not noticeable there and it seems the British free market has been kept and indeed the Hong Kong free market methods have expanded rapidly into China.
Vietnam- where we visited Hanoi, Da Nang (China Beach) Hoi An, Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City) and the Mekong Delta was both an incredible experience, and also an opportunity to see the U.S. experience in Vietnam through Vietnamese eyes. The people, it is clear, work hard and are very interested in advancing economically. The roads are a primitive adventure, where there are virtually no lights and where lane markings mean nothing and where motorcycles first and bicycles next outnumber cars. Even crossing the streets is a challenge. We were told to keep moving at a consistent pace and cycles and vehicles would slow down or drive around us and they did! It is certainly not for the faint of heart. New small factories were going up all over and on the road, each village has one shop after another often attached to a home where shop owners do their business in the front and live in the back. You could tell how well the business was doing by how well the house looked and how many stories it had. Everywhere you saw the Vietnamese flag (red with a yellow star) flying on homes and businesses.
As you all know, the U.S. fought the Vietnamese in the 60's and 70's to stop communism in Southeast Asia and the expansion of China. The Vietnamese call the war the "American" war. They say that after leading the fight to oust the Japanese during World War II (while working with America), Ho Chi Minh asked for help in keeping the French from returning (which they did, finally departing in 1954) and even offering the U.S. rights to a naval base at Da Nang. "They" say Ho was spurned and instead the U.S. backed the French and even provided over $1 billion in assistance, so the Vietnamese felt they tried to agree with the U.S. and were rejected. Of course, their position is based on their view.
One thing is clear, if our goal was to spread free enterprise, we won the war because Vietnam is rushing head long into being one of the Asian capitalist tigers. While Vietnam is communist, you couldn't tell the difference economically. Our social welfare programs run rings around what Vietnam has and they do have a progressive tax system, but also a massive underground economy in U.S. dollars which were eagerly sought all over.
Cambodia was hot and dry, with an obvious massive increase in hotels in the Angkor Wat area. This area will change very fast and could soon have a problem that the temples will be loved so much that tourism will accelerate the damage being done. Common sense controls will be necessary to save this treasure.
What was most haunting was the monument to the killing fields where Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge committed genocide on its own people and were finally stopped by Vietnam, of all people. The people of Cambodia are poorer than the Vietnamese and also interested in maintaining their culture and crafts. We found many active beggars, victims of mines or sellers of knick-knacks all over Siem Riep (Angkor Wat). The temples were amazing, built between the 9th and 15th century - the big kahuna Angkor Wat is huge and was built over a two-year period with about 500,000 builders and artisans. The scale of the amount of work done is just mind-boggling.
Next, we went to Singapore, which is a modern, clean island with many parks and gardens. This country has a dense population and a very hardworking population. Shopping is as impressive as Hong Kong - stores in fact were packed on Sunday night at 10 p.m., (compare that with U.S. shopping areas!) Singapore is very strict but we saw no uniformed police anywhere. And if you wonder if they still cane, the answer is yes. There was an article in the Strait Times while we were there about it. The population seemed well behaved - maybe "their" system works.
Our last stop, Thailand, the longest running independent country in Asia - it was never a colony. Bangkok is a huge city with approximately 10 million people; the roads are packed with cars and motorcycles. In fact, Houston traffic is a breeze in comparison. Certain times of the day traffic doesn't move - we covered 1˝ miles in one hour and twenty minutes one night and stayed out of cabs after that! The streets in the evening are packed with street merchants and carryout carts for food. The palaces and temples were astounding, the food was light, hot and inexpensive and the people are very polite. The dollar goes far here like in Vietnam and the Asian antique shopping is beyond comprehension. We particularly liked the Klong (canal boat tour through the back areas). Thailand is dealing with economic problems, over-crowding, the need to expand and employment issues and a Muslim insurgency in the South (kind of sounds like us).
Observations After 4 Weeks
in a News Black Hole
Extensive, distant overseas travel leads one to not have access or the time to keep up with everything going on in Texas and the U.S.
The good news is you return and get some perspective on Texas and U.S. events. So here we go with TCR observations, not necessarily in order of importance:
- Door opens to tax increase on Social Security.
TCR Comment: Tax hikes hurt the economy and job growth. Maybe we should add private accounts on top of Social Security and raise the retirement age to 68 and use a real index for benefit increases and not the artificial high one used currently.
- U.S. border threat - at a February 16, 2005 hearing of the Senate Intelligence Committee, Senators were told Al Qaeda has considered entering the U.S. via our virtually non-existent border with Mexico. On March 4, 2005, the President's budget called for funding only 200 new agents while the December 2004 authorizing legislation called for 2000 new agents a year for 5 years, what gives?
TCR Comment: A few thoughts here, first federal spending has been out of control for four plus years and President Bush is trying to slow growth, but this is not the place. As TCR has preached for years, we need priorities for government; it can't be all things to all people all the time. Public safety and security is our number one priority. Breaking news - Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison helped lead the fight to get the agents funded.
- What happened to social issues? The President's re-election occurred for a few reasons, boiled down to Bush's leadership in the war on Islamic terrorists and Bush's identifying himself and his party as the party of family, faith and respect for life.
TCR Comment: We should be pushing hard for a marriage protection amendment.
- Federal Courts - especially appellate, are bad and getting worse. The most recent affront, the Supreme Court overturns the juvenile death penalty. So first it was racial preferences, then gay rights and now this. We have a narrow majority of judges imposing their left-wing culture on the rest of us. What's worse, the opinion cited international law, which has zip to do with our sacred constitution. On the issue itself, it's something the legislatures should deal with and there are points to consider on both sides, but what we have is law being made by unelected judges.
TCR Comment: Maybe it's time for Congress to curb out of control judges by limiting their jurisdiction in areas starting with marriage, the pledge and the Ten Commandments.
- Spending is a problem both locally, in Texas and in the U.S. All over the country, government spending for unnecessary, non-priority items continues unabated. In Houston, the Safe Clear program for towing on highways has morphed from user pays to taxpayer pays. In Texas, the education reform debate has now become another opportunity to throw money at the educrats. Nationally, the House just passed a multi-billion dollar "Transportation" bill that includes billions of spending for museums, landscaping and other "high priority" transportation projects. No wonder things are out of control.
TCR Comment: In many ways our conservative elected officials have forsaken their philosophy and promises to us. It's time we remind them.
- In Texas, HB 2 and 3 - Education reform and finance and tax bills are moving in Austin, but at what price? An income tax by any other name, some special interests protected, others gouged - what gives? First, getting control of runaway property taxes is a good idea, but if a lower cap on increases is not put in place the 50 percent proposed reduction will be gone in under four years! Second, why are we increasing the total spent on public education? While most Texan's property taxes are up considerably, we have not seen corresponding improvements in academic results. Third, the tax plan on its face patchworks the present system with a payroll tax or franchise tax, an increase in the sales tax, a surcharge on the sales tax for snack foods and soft drinks and tripling the tax on tobacco products. Other reform ideas are a plus, a taxpayer's vote prior to tax increases, moving school board elections to November and allowing appeals on valuation issues to Small Claims Court make it easier for the homeowner. TCR Hats Off To - Representative Anna Mowery (R-FT. Worth) and Senator Kyle Janek (R-Houston) for this idea.
TCR Comment: Patchworking the present tax system is not the answer. How about a straight consumption tax with no exemptions, no deductions and a rebate for a base level of expenditures? That is simply understandable and fair. As for spending more on education, it is not necessarily the answer; we are not doing an effective job with existing resources, are we?
- Medicaid, Medicare and prescription drugs are the real budget buster for the federal government (Medicaid for states). These programs are growing geometrically and if spending is not taken off autopilot very soon, entitlements will swallow most of the budget in the states and U.S. government.
- Out of control Federal spending - the liberal excuse to sunset the Bush tax cuts. That's right, the big spenders in Washington now say due to the large budget deficit, we can't make the tax cuts permanent. Stephen Moore, president of the Free Enterprise Fund, in a recent speech at the Heritage Foundation retreat for newly elected House and Senate members, outlines seven rules for cutting government spending. Let TCR share them with you:
- Pass a Taxpayer Bill of Rights that caps federal spending growth to inflation plus population growth.
- End corporate welfare - save $100 billion a year.
- Impose financial audits of every federal agency and deny spending increases to those who fail.
- End all federal subsidies to individuals or corporations with income of more than $1 million.
- Pass programs back to the states - welfare worked, how about Medicaid, transportation and the environment? After all, states are the lab of democracy.
- Defund the left - end all programs that fund left-wing activities and advocacy. Examples: Legal Services Corp., AmeriCorps, etc.
- Read the constitution and enforce it.
TCR Comment: As Steve Moore said, "these measures together would start a fiscal revolution… obsolete and counterproductive domestic programs must be chopped." The sooner the better, government can't be all things to all people.
About Your Editor
Gary Polland is a long-time conservative and Republican spokesman, fund-raiser, and leader who recently completed three terms as the Harris County Republican Chairman. During his three terms, Gary was described as the most successful county Chairman in America by Human Events - The National Conservative Weekly. He is in his ninth year of editing a newsletter dealing with key conservative and Republican issues. The last three years he has edited Texas Conservative Review. Gary is a practicing attorney and strategic consultant and can be reached at (713) 621-6335.
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