Volume 4, Number 105
5 July 2004

The Balkans

Dear Friends,

Would I be able to tell, just by looking at it, how wealthy or poor a country is, if I knew nothing about it in advance? Of course, there is no country that I know literally "nothing" about, but on many I come pretty close. Romania and Bulgaria are among them.

Bucharest (capital of Romania) is often called the Paris of Eastern Europe, for its wide boulevards, delightful parks and gardens, and huge traffic circles like the Etoile. One such circle contains an Arc de Triomphe. The dictator Ceaucescu had ordered many houses torn down to promote the Paris image. It did look something like the Paris I lived in in 1948, but Bucharest, with its gray (dirty) buildings, lacked the charming architecture of Paris. One cannot suddenly re-shape a city to imitate another that has required over a thousand years to build.

We were taken to a dinner in a fancy restaurant, where an superb folk dance was performed. I could see myself, in Arlington Hall, New York sixty years ago, performing the same (or similar) steps. I am not sure how many dishes were served, but there must have been at least twenty (no kidding!) After discovering the endless trays that kept coming, we Americans took a nibble and then turned back our plates. I was dismayed to think of all the underfed Romanians while so much food was wasted.

As we were driving from Bucharest to Constanta (on the Black Sea), I learned that Constanta has a cedilla under the second "t" which makes it pronounced "Constantsa."

On the road to Constanta I watched the cattle, horses, and farms. The cows and horses seemed about as well fed as those in the United States, but often the cows were grazing on a grassy strip between the farm fences and the highway. I could not see why they did not wander on to the highway. (Maybe they were chained and I didn't notice.) The highway was modern, double-lane or four-lane, but most of the side streets were narrow, asphalt, or dirt. Most houses were small, about twenty-five feet square. The roofs consisted of four triangles, joined in a pointed center on top. They were primarily tin, although a few were red tile. The farms were mainly ragged, with weeds cropping out from place to place. I saw no modern farm equipment, nor even a man in the fields with a hoe.

Very few vehicles — mainly trucks — were on the highway, and very few people alongside it. In Constanta, people were casually dressed, mostly as ragged as U.S. college students, but I do not know what alternative clothing they owned. Constanta is a combination of Coney Island and all its glitter (but no roller coaster that I could see), and a commercial port, with cranes and other loading equipment. Occasionally we got a glimpse of the Black Sea, but Robin and I did not walk to the beach. It was too far for elderly cane-hobblers.

We boarded our cruise ship in Constanta and set sail up the Black-Sea-Danube canal. Jetlagged and tired, we immediately dropped off to sleep. When we woke up, we were in Rouche, Bulgaria.

Only one bridge crosses the Danube between Bulgaria and Romania. It is at Rouche, on the highway from Sofia to the northeast. When I asked why no more bridges, I was told they would be too expensive. But my economist mind told me that people and governments spend their money buying what they want most. Apparently the two peoples saw little need to visit each other frequently.

The food on the ship at every meal was almost (not quite!) as plentiful at that restaurant. So much for the poor, starving Romanians! We asked our waiters for small portions, but they politely replied, “Just don’t eat what you don’t want.” At least the excess was fed to the fish (or so I was told).

In Rouche (Bulgaria) we boarded a bus to drive (all day) to Nikopol, farther up the Danube, where we again met our ship. On the map I could see no roads along the river. Anyway, we traveled inland. Again I watched the farms. However, the roads contained even fewer vehicles than in Romania, and these mostly commercial trucks. Very few houses. But all the houses had red-roof tiles (no tin), and I could see no people or farm machinery. Exception: once I saw a man in the middle of the field with a hand-held hoe.

The farms grew mainly wheat, corn, and sunflowers. Last year, on a river cruise through Holland, Germany, Austria, and Hungary, I had been delighted to see the small German villages glide by, although disappointed that they were mainly painted white, without the quaint German designs. In Bulgaria there were vast fields of openness with very few towns. Some passengers noted the emptiness. "Where do the people live?" they asked. (Answer: in the few towns.) They must have had long distances to walk to cultivate the fields. I wondered about the one man with the hoe, and I thought of Edwin Markham. (When I was a child, my mother gave me a framed copy of "The Man with the Hoe," I suppose hoping that I would emulate his work ethic.

The sunflowers were magnificent, but I chided myself for not knowing the agricultural conditions required for them (rainfall, sun, and soil, etc.) I will look them up in my encyclopedia when I finish this letter. (One advantage of bringing my computer is that I have on it the entire Britannica. The ship library has only novels, and little about the countries we are going through.) So, I looked up "sunflower," and learned that the "sunflower plant is valuable from an economic as well as from an ornamental point of view. The leaves are used as fodder, the flowers yield a yellow dye, and the seeds contain oil and are used for food. The yellow, sweet oil obtained by compression of the seeds is considered equal to olive or almond oil for table use. Sunflower oil cake is used for stock and poultry feeding. The oil is also used in soap and paints and as a lubricant." (You didn't expect that from The Quaker Economist, did you?) But it told me nothing about relative costs, or why sunflowers were selected for a given field instead of other crops.

When she read the above, Robin mentioned that she put sunflower seeds in the granola she had been making for years. When I asked the guide what they were used for here, he replied “mostly cattle feed.’ I saw no cattle here, but I let the question drop.

As we approached Nikopol (a Roman town with a Greek name, "Victory Town,") the guide pointed out that many houses were empty. Why, I asked? "Because as the children grew up," he said, "they wanted the excitement of the city." I was not satisfied with this answer. My experience was that if you can't sell your house, you lower the price until the market finds a buyer. But suppose there are many more sellers than buyers at any price, as in the ghost towns of Colorado. If you lower the price to zero, and if no one buys, and you must move, you abandon the building. This would be a sign of poverty — local opportunity was missing — as our guide finally admitted.

At last we had a day of rest, since the distance from Nikopol to Belgrade offered "nothing" but beautiful scenery — no houses, a few open farms, just forests that were not visibly penetrable. I could compare Romania on one shore with Bulgaria, later Serbia, on the other, but I learned little. A Romanian historian gave a lecture on Romania. He was very boring, saying nothing I could not have learned from the encyclopedia, so I decided not to waste time on his remaining lectures.

Belgrade, Serbia, was a "richer" city than Bucharest. Several bridges spanned the Danube, the first we had seen since Rouche. We enjoyed a morning bus tour through the city, and I saw window displays of goods I had not seen since leaving the United States, also one or two skyscrapers. The Serbian guide apologized that there were few tourist items (which didn't bother us; Robin and I are now passing on our "tourist" collection to the next generation) because the country had been rent by war. We passed several bombed-out buildings, which would have reminded me of Germany in 1948, except that they were surrounded by intact buildings. I asked about the embassy of China (which the U.S. had bombed by mistake) and was told it had been torn down and replaced in a different location. No point in going there, but we did see other embassies, including the American.

We also saw the houses of the rich, on larger plots, fenced in and gated. They were mainly gray, tasteless, and unspectacular, distinguished only by their large size and grassy lawns.

Most passengers spent the afternoon walking around and shopping for what they could find. I slept for 2 1/2 hours, after which we continued up the Danube.

Serbia was the only country with a passport check. The immigration officials came on board just before our departure and compared every passport picture with the real person. What a waste of time, I thought! All they accomplished was to disturb my afternoon nap. They left, and we continued to Mohacs, Hungary.

We left the ship at Mohacs and took a bus to Kalocsa, a lovely town in the midst of an agricultural area. The houses along the way were larger, architecturally more varied than in Romania or Bulgaria, and spread out more among the fields. For the first time I saw chimneys (Hungary is colder than countries to the south) and television antennae (presumably a sign of a richer country). The main roads were asphalt, well cared for, and there were more vehicles, especially passenger cars. Side roads were narrow, sometimes paved, sometimes not.

The crops were mainly wheat, corn, sunflowers (not flowering as in Bulgaria, because of the earlier season), and paprika, for which Hungary is famous. Some wheat fields were spacious, obviously harvested by machine, though I didn't see heavy machinery – probably wrong season. But I wondered where the farm machines were kept when not in use and whether they had alternative use to agriculture. Some wheat fields were smaller, obviously harvested by hand. They were more scraggly than the larger ones, with the plants often squashed to the ground and weeds growing among them. When I asked about the difference between large and small, I was told the small were family plots where the owners did not use machinery. (But the large plots were private, family farms. Collectivization had been reversed in every country we saw, when communism ended.) The .paprika plants were very small -- it was early in the season -- and seemed well cared-for. I had the impression that the farther up the Danube we went, the wealthier the countryside.

At Kalocsa I had to go to the bathroom urgently. At the bus stop, I saw a “WC” sign, so I headed for tht door. Inside was a squat, bulky woman who spoke only Hungarian. She pointed to a sign, "100 forints." But I had no forints, only dollars and a credit card. Neither was acceptable. Next to her was an open door, and I could see inside the toilet I wanted. But she stood in the doorway, blocking my entry with arms outstretched. (BTW: Each country had its own currency and would not accept any other, or credit cards either. I wondered how the Balkan countries traded with each other.) The situation would have been hilarious had I not been in a hurry. I ran out to the bus driver, who was accustomed to receiving tips in dollars, and exchanged one for 201 forints. The lady courteously accepted 100 of these, wrote out a receipt, showed me into the room and pointed to the toilet, as if I didn’t know what it was. Then she left me and closed the door (thank heaven!) After I had left, so did she. She picked up the “WC” sign, put it inside, locked the door, and rode away on her bicycle.

We visited a farm in Kalocsa, where trained horses put on an impressive show. The ship had followed us to Kalocsa, where we boarded it again and had supper, followed by delightful Hungarian songs and dances.

"If this is Saturday, this must be Budapest." When I was younger, I looked down on quickie tours. To know a country, you had to live there. (I still think so.) As a student, I lived in families in Paris and Frankfurt, and later I would go abroad only if I was employed abroad. I was fortunate to have long-term assignments in Bolivia, Kenya, Mexico, and the Philippines, and speaking engagements in other countries of western Europe, Asia, Africa, and Latin America. But nothing took me to eastern Europe. That was left to my older age, and to cruises (because I am too tired every day to work and cannot easily walk).

In 2001 I was asked to give a paper at a conference in Heidelberg. A river cruise from Amsterdam to Vienna fit snugly just before the conference, so Robin and I signed up. (The Main-Danube canal took us over the continental divide, which in Europe runs east and west.) It rained all the way, but worse yet, in Regensberg, Germany, the Danube was too high to let the ship under the bridges, so we were bussed the rest of the way. In Regensberg also, "9/11" happened, and my conference was called off. I was invited again a year later, but the German professor in charge of the conference told me what to write in my paper -- something I disagreed with – he treated me like "his" German grad student, so I withdrew from the conference. (When I judged doctoral theses at Colorado, the student would say what he or she wished; the professor would only make suggestions and judge the over-all quality of the argument.)

In 2003, we tried again, this time from Amsterdam to Constanta. But a 500-year drought had lowered the level of the Danube so a pontoon bridge in Serbia was sitting on the bottom, and we could not get beyond Budapest. That was unfortunate, because eastern Europe was what I wanted most to see. This year we started at Constanta and went upstream to Budapest.

Budapest is a lovely city, the combination of Buda, hilly on the right bank, with Pest, flat on the left bank. We took a morning bus tour, first through Pest and then across the river to Buda. Both are from the nineteenth century or earlier, looking much more like Paris than Bucharest did. While there is only one big public park in Pest, the avenues are wide and intersections (many triangular or circular) were surrounded by bits of grass, trees, and flowers. Multicolored buildings of many architectural styles — domes, towers of different sorts — adorned the streets. More than any other city so far, it looked lived-in, but also with an opera house that compares with the old one in Paris; a huge, tastefully ornate Parliament building; and a business district where people also lived in apartments (flats, for British readers). In Pest, we climbed to a castle, which the others visited but Robin and I — too frail for the many stairs — sat in a café guzzling ice cream and looking across at a bullet-pocked building that had been a Nazi military fort, but was later occupied by the Russians. Robin took a walk and discovered some old Roman ruins, now being uncovered.

We returned to the ship for our afternoon naps, and packing.

Now, judging only from what I have written above, what would you guess is the gross domestic product per capita of each country? GDP counts every economic good produced on the country's soil, whereas gross national product consists of all product by residents, whether they are at home or abroad. The difference is mainly foreign investment income.

Romania _________________

Bulgaria _________________

Serbia ___________________


Here is my guess:

Romania $1400

Bulgaria 1200

Serbia 1500

Hungary 3000

I looked up the official figures on the web after returning home. My friend Eddie Bernstein, who had worked for the U.S. Treasury, once told me the President wanted to know the per capita income of every country in the world. But the Treasury did not know. So the officers keeping track of each country came up with guesses. Eddie said that these guesses, sometimes revised, were the foundations of reports for many years, including by United Nations. I also recall sitting in the office of Alvaro Sancho, the national accountant in Costa Rica, who told me that when President Kennedy visited, he wanted to know the per capita GDP of Costa Rica. Several officers of the statistical agency sat in a circle and guessed; then they took the average; JFK was satisfied.

Here they are.

Romania $1643

Bulgaria 1751

Serbia 1361

Hungary 4878

Well, that's the last time I will guess. I am glad I am retired.

Sincerely your friend,

Jack Powelson

Readers' Comments:

Note: Several readers (see below) criticized gross domestic product per capita as an inadequate measure of a country's economic health. I agree, as do virtually all economists. But, what is better? Rory Short suggested the mortality rates between economic classes within societies. This is another measure, of which there are many. Why do most economists use GDP per capita? Not because we don't know of other measures, but because we believe this one to be no worse than the rest.

Why do we need a single measure for economic health anyway? I think we do not, and by guessing about the GDPs of the Balkan countries, surely I did not think I was assessing their over-all economic health. — Jack

I wonder what the per capita GDP figures would be adjusted for purchasing power parity? Since these kinds of figures are based on some educated guess-work anyway, I suspect that your economist's and traveler's eye might get closer to the PPP numbers than to the unadjusted figures.

— Chris Viavant, Salt Lake City (UT) Friends Meeting.

An Editor Comments:

The per capita GDP for these countries, after the "purchasing power parity" (PPP) adjustment, shows that they aren't nearly as poor as the unadjusted income implies. Here are the adjusted income levels from 2001: Romania $5,830, Bulgaria $6,890, Hungary $12,340. I don't have the income level for Serbia. — Loren Cobb

You failed to report on the levels of happiness apparent throughout your trip, to my way of thinking far more important than the GDP. As an economist, you seem to have lost sight of the reason people want and need money. Mind you, most of your fellow Americans, and many others especially in the West seem to have lost sight of this also. People want money because they think it will help them to "live happily ever after." Yet many billions of people manage to live happily without vast amounts of money!

— Nick Bagnall, United Kingdom.

Hi, Jack and Robin: It sounds like you guys had a great trip. I loved the story about the lady with the WC sign! Now there is a lady who understands free enterprise!! I have been doing a little bit of local traveling myself--I got a newer horse trailer and have begun to haul my horse off for trail rides in various places around Arizona and New Mexico. Take care. Love,

— Pat Corbett, Cascabel Worship Group, Tucson Arizona.

Note: Pat is the widow of Jim Corbett, known to many Quakers for his assistance to migrants. Jim and Pat were good friends of Robin's and mine, and Pat still is. — Jack

Jack Powelson visits some Balkan countries with half an eye on their GDP's. This is an interesting perspective, but the GDP is, in my view, a very blunt instrument for assessing the quality of life in a country. A book I read a while back by Richard Wilkinson, unfortunately I cannot recall the title, argues that comparing the mortality rates between the economic classes within societies is a far more accurate way of assessing of the relative quality of life in those societies. In the book he gives facts and figures and, I seem to remember, some anecdotal evidence to justify his argument.

— Rory Short, Johannesburg Monthly Meeting South Africa

The Author Replies:

Dear Rory: The name of the book is Mind the Gap: Hierarchies, Health, and Human Evolution. I agree with you and Richard Wilkinson. Most economists do. Mortality rates measure one thing, GDP another. Both are useful. — Jack

I loved your travelogue, with its insightful observations. Having been in some of the places you visited (Budapest) I mostly concur with you.

On your other point, I have a real problem concerning international comparisons of GDP (or GNP), which is the disparity between exchange rates and buying power/market baskets. In the 1960, an economist by the name of Martin Gilbert did some very interesting comparisons, showing that there can be a factor of 2 or more between the ratios of buying power between "market basket" exchange rates and the monetary rates. In those terms, some of the "poor" countries aren't really that poor, and vice versa. So, what should be the proper terms of reference in dividing the world among the haves, have-nots and have-somethings?

— Tom Selldorff. Weston MA.

Why do you draw a distinction between 'ornamental' and 'economic'? [re sunflowers]. Isn't 'ornamental' sufficient value in itself?

You also say " .. didn't expect that from TQE ..". Well, actually, it would not be a bad idea if all economists were to get away from their graphs and mathematical models from time to time and ask about the 'real value' (as distinct from the 'price') of the 'goods' which they endlessly talk about. See Manfred Max-Neef (and others) on the limited and sterile nature of most of what passes for academic economics!! Let's have some economics of the real world - which values diversity and beauty even if it can't measure it.

— Tony Weekes, Belfast, Ireland

They grow a lot of sunflowers in Minnesota and the Dakotas. Like soybeans, they are an oil-rich seed. Sunflowers will grow in drier and cooler locations than soybeans.   I suspect your missed guess on the per capita GDP for Serbia, based on the appearance of their capital, may be due to the inertia inherent in social change. Serbia's economy has surely been hurt in recent times by their wars and the economic sanctions they were under for many years.

— Allen Treadway. Decatur (IL) Meeting

Another stimulating TQE (you could be a travel writer). It is amazing what terrible things man can do to wonderful places .The Balkans are a living testimony to that. (However they have enriched our language--"Balkanization"). I think that there is hope now as they slowly become part of mainstream Europe, and they can claim their separate identities in a peaceful manner .

— Tapan Munroe, a Friend from Moraga (CA)

Economists try to figure out what you'll give up of one thing to get another . If the ornamental value of sunflowers is priceless and of inestimable value to you, then that's a way of saying that you have absolutely no idea what you would give up to have sunflowers in your garden. If that's the case, then the ornamental value is not an economic value -- in other words, economists have no way to study the ornamental value of sunflowers to you. Thus, they have two different values to you, one of which can be examined by economists, and is termed the 'economic' value, and the other of which cannot be examined by economists.

— Russ Nelson, St. Lawrence Valley (NY) Friends Meeting (and publisher of TQE).

[In my visits to eastern Europe] I was interested that no one I met could account for the huge unfenced fields. The obsessive English interest in landscape quality and character, and how it changes, simply did not exist there. I have been unable to find out whether it predated collectivization or was a result of it. No one I have met is at all interested.

— Stephen Beesley, Attender - High Wycombe PM England, & Isle of Man PM, British Isles.


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Publisher and Editorial Board

Publisher: Russ Nelson, St. Lawrence Valley (NY) Friends Meeting

Editorial Board:

  • Chuck Fager, Director, Quaker House, Fayetteville, NC
  • Virginia Flagg, San Diego (CA) Friends Meeting
  • Valerie Ireland, Boulder (CO) Friends Meeting.
  • Asa Janney, Herndon (VA) Meeting.
  • Jack Powelson, Boulder (CO) Meeting of Friends, Principal Editor
  • Norval Reece, Newtown (PA) Friends Meeting.
  • J.D. von Pischke, a Friend from Reston, VA.
  • John Spears, Princeton (NJ) Friends Meeting
  • Geoffrey Williams, Attender at New York Fifteenth Street Meeting.

Members of the Editorial Board receive Letters a week in advance for their criticisms, but they do not necessarily endorse the contents of any of them.

Copyright © 2004 by John P. Powelson. All rights reserved. Permission is hereby granted for non-commercial reproduction.

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