Rick Steves Should Visit Countries, Not Economically Analyze Them
It should be said up front that travel writer and documentarian Rick Steves is a special person. It's fun watching him on PBS simply because it's enjoyable watching people do what they love to do. When Steves is working it's apparent that it's anything but work to him.
At the same time, it would be great if Steves might cease commenting on the economic situations of the countries he visits. His commentary there does him no good. When he wades into economics and politics he doubtless turns off a big segment of his potential audience. Perhaps worse, those of his fans not offended come away mis-informed.
Steves broadcasted his interventionist economic views most recently in a documentary/presentation on Cuba. To watch it is to get the impression that despite the lack of freedom, torture and murder that has come to define it, Cuba is a pretty nice place to live. The waters between Cuba and Florida are known for being shark invested, yet Cuba's citizens routinely risk death to escape the island nation. That they do reminds us that Steves' sunny view of the country obscures a much more brutal reality. But we won't discuss what's a given.
What will be discussed first is Steves' confident assertion that Cuba is littered with 50s era American cars thanks to a longstanding U.S. trade embargo first placed on the country in the 60s. If Steves is to be believed, the embargo has kept Cuba in a time warp thanks to trade between producers in each country being illegal. Ok, but here's where Steves commits his first error.
While it's illegal for U.S. producers to trade with Cuban producers, quality automobiles are made in lots of countries not the U.S. Assuming the embargo is actually keeping modern American cars out of the country, then German, Italian, British, Korean, Japanese, Chinese, Indian, and all manner of non-U.S. carmakers could enter a market theoretically closed off to American producers. The problem is that they haven't. The paucity of imports is plainly driven by something else. And that's the point.
The bigger truth missed by Steves is that the U.S. embargo couldn't possibly be the reason that there are no modern American-made cars there. That is so simply because embargoes are toothless. They don't work. History is very clear here. In the 1970s certain Arab OPEC countries placed an oil embargo on the U.S. and the Netherlands. Despite this, both countries still consumed OPEC oil as though the embargo was non-existent. They easily bought the commodity from countries that embargoing OPEC nations were exporting to. Going back to World War I, U.S. trade with Germany was cut off during the war. But it didn't end trade between the Germans and the Americans. Once the embargo was in place, exchange between U.S. producers and Scandinavian countries surged. The latter reflected ongoing trade between Germans and Americans; albeit through intermediaries in Scandinavia. If Cuban citizens truly wanted modern American cars, and had the means to purchase American cars, they would buy them from individuals allowed to freely trade with U.S. producers. Embargoes are symbolic.
All of which brings us to the greatest economic fib promoted by Steves about Cuba. Addressing the scarcity of everything there, including American cars, Steves said the answer to the lack of everything is something that's still being debated. According to Steves, it's an either/or thing: Either a lack of economic freedom is what's kept Cuban consumption stuck in the 1950s, or it's the pesky U.S. embargo. Let's be serious. The embargo has nothing to do with Cuban desperation that Steves is quite eager to gloss over. Getting right to the point, Cubans can't and don't import a lot of foreign goods simply because they're not free to produce with an eye on exporting. Production is the source of all demand, but there's little freedom to produce in this tragically unfree nation. The Cuban people have very little to buy precisely because they've long lacked the freedom to sell. In commerce money is a lubricant. Ultimately we're trading products for products. Cubans don't import much simply because they don't export much.
Without defending the U.S. embargo of Cuba for even a second, one that needlessly legitimized Fidel Castro, it's not what is keeping the citizenry impoverished. Only a lack of freedom to produce can keep people from importing. Shame on Steves for so blatantly mis-informing his viewers while at the same time betraying the Cuban people. Their struggles need to be advertised. Steves had the chance to tell their story, but let his interventionist ideology get in the way; that, or he's just economically confused. I'd like to think it's the latter.
Indeed, Rick Steves seems like a good person who is misinformed about basic economics. In that case, he should stick to the travel commentary. He's really good at it. Not so much when he talks economics. It makes him quite a bit less special.