Last Time I Saw Daniel Pearl We Made a Few Bets
"Say hi to Elvis for me!" These were the last words my friend Daniel Pearl said to me in person before the Wall Street Journal reporter died an awful death in Karachi five months later on Feb. 1, 2002.
Danny didn't mean the King, but Japan's prime minister. It was in Mumbai and we had just caught up over too many beers at the Taj Mahal Hotel, reprising a tradition that dated back to our days in Washington, where we worked together. Danny got a kick out of a recent column I'd written about Japan's new leader putting out a CD titled "Junichiro Koizumi Presents My Favorite Elvis Songs." "So, I guess that explains Japan's deflation problem -- all air guitar and no reform," he deadpanned.
But Danny was convinced Koizumi was the savior who would turn Japan's economy around. I said no way, and 12 years later, I can say I won that bet. It was just one of many, mind you. The way Danny and I would debate anything -- Reaganomics, whether Miles Davis was more influential than John Lennon, if Pakistan's Pervez Musharraf would be a good president -- was making a bet (always, who pays the beer tab) and project things 12 years out.
As I think of Danny on the 12th anniversary of his brutal murder, I'm preoccupied by all the things I want to talk to him about on the state of the world today. After all, many of the standing wagers we made in the late 1990s, and on that day in September 2001 when I last saw him in India, touch on the pivotal issues of the moment and bear recounting.
Bet: China's Communist Party is toast in the Internet age. OK, so I lost this one. Twelve years ago, I was convinced that cyberspace was too big, too dynamic and too American for then-Chinese President Jiang Zemin or his successor Hu Jintao to control. Danny knew better. A dozen years on, we know the Internet didn't change China so much as China had its way with what many back then called the "information superhighway." Danny wasn't just convinced that Beijing would set up any number of roadblocks, detours and roundabouts to bend the cyberworld to its will, but that others would follow its lead. That's indeed what's happened throughout the world and here in Asia, where even democracies India, Japan and South Korea are mulling Internet curbs. Man, was I wrong. Check, please!
Bet: Alan Greenspan would long be the "Maestro." I won this one, arguing that the then-Federal Reserve chairman's legacy was doomed; Danny was a fan. This topic came up because I had a copy of Bob Woodward's gushing 2000 Greenspan biography, "Maestro," with me at the bar. Granted, I had been a Fed reporter in Washington for years, while Danny was more of a generalist. And even I, like much of the D.C. press corps in the 1990s, gave Greenspan the benefit of the doubt on topics I now regret, including the merits of repealing the Depression-era Glass-Steagall Act separating consumer banking from trading. Still, I was uncomfortable with Greenspan's can-do-no-wrong aura and his asset bubbles. Your shout, Mr. Pearl.
Bet: The euro will never survive. This one is up in the air. Danny's take was that the single currency would forever transform and harmonize Europe's economies in ways that should worry the U.S. Treasury Department and corporate America. I took the other side of the wager, and two years earlier had written a Barron's cover story arguing that it would never work in the long run. We both agreed that Asia wouldn't be able to replicate what the euro had done. Really, the idea that Japan and, say, Cambodia would ever form a viable economic bloc seemed as fanciful then as now. But on Europe, I think the jury is still out. Things are quiet over that way, but Brussels hasn't fixed its problems -- it's just treated the symptoms. We'll go Dutch on this one.
Bet: India's economy versus China. Danny won this one, believing that for all India's potential -- including a young, growing and English-proficient population -- China had the wind at the back. My money was in India, whose promise I viewed through the lens of one of Aesop's best-known fables, "The Tortoise and the Hare." India was clearly the tortoise and China the hare in a story in which the hare races forward only to burn out before reaching the finish line, allowing the slower-moving tortoise to win. Well, not so much after 10 years squandered under Sonia Gandhi's Congress party. I'll be getting this bill.
Bet: Islam and modernity will coexist easily. Danny would be very sad to see that he lost this one. After Danny was kidnapped and later beheaded by al-Qaeda member Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, much was written, accurately, about his passion for building bridges across cultures. He believed a Jewish-American working for a symbol of capitalism such as the Journal sipping tea in Iran, navigating through Yemen, wandering dusty alleys in Sudan and mingling in Pakistan could help achieve big things for the good of mankind. And he had the courage of his convictions. Sadly, the 12 years since his death haven't been kind to his dream of cultural cohesion.
Bet: back to music, the thing Danny and I first bonded over. We used to catch concerts together in Washington, often bands no one else we knew listened to -- the Cramps, Peter Himmelman and K's Choice. Danny, a musician, was always after me to pick up the guitar again. Well, I lost this bet, too. But if it got me another meeting somewhere, anywhere, anytime with my friend Danny, I would gladly learn in a hurry. I'd even play some Elvis.
(William Pesek is a Bloomberg View columnist. Follow him on Twitter at @williampesek.)
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