chapter 1 Portrait of the Investor as a Young Man My hometown, Demopolis, sits in the heart of the Alabama Canebrake, where the Black Warrior and the Tombigbee Rivers meet. The largest city in Marengo County, it lies in the center of a region of Georgia, Alabama, and Mississippi known historically as the Black Belt, so named for the layer of naturally rich, thick black prairie soil that almost two hundred years ago nourished the growth of vast cotton plantations, some of which outlasted slavery, none of which survived the boll weevil. It was in that soil, when I was a boy, that my friends and I would dig for bait before setting off to spend the day fishing. Channel catfish are omnivorous and will strike at just about anything they can smell-they are able to smell just about everything-and earthworms, on a hot summer day, are a lot easier to gather than crickets. I must have been eight years old and we were digging in the backyard of my house when my cousin Wade, who was about ten months older than I, ventured a remark that, while entirely incomprehensible at the time, remains vivid to me to this day. "If we keep digging," he said, "we'll end up in China." I was not ignorant of the fact that the world was round, but not until I was able to consult a globe-I was an enthusiastic researcher even then-did I come to appreciate that directly opposite Alabama, on the other side of the planet, sprawled the vast landmass of the People's Republic, where covered in dirt and drenched with sweat I would eventually emerge if I were energetic enough to keep digging. Decades have intervened since then, and I have followed a more circuitous route, but on the very doorstep of China is where I find myself living today, the father of two little blue-eyed blondes who speak Mandarin as fluently as they speak English. How I came to be a permanent resident of Singapore is a story about digging of a different kind, excavation perhaps less arduous, though no less energetic. It is a result of my endless effort to experience firsthand the inner workings of the world, to get out and unearth the real story, to explore it all for myself. I have circumnavigated the globe twice now, once by motorcycle, once by car, investigating the world at ground level, charting the shifting circumstances of more than a hundred nations in the course of those five years. For me, understanding history and its consequences has not been an armchair endeavor, but a hands-on adventure. It has led to great personal and material rewards, and it inevitably led me here, far from the backwoods of Alabama, to this largely Chinese outpost on the southern tip of the Malay Peninsula. If history affirms anything, it is the proposition put forth by the Greeks that "nothing endures but change." It originated with the philosopher Heraclitus in the sixth century B.C., when he informed us aphoristically that it is not possible to step twice into the same river. Success in life is measured by the ability to anticipate change, and I came to Singapore in response to the realization that the world is in the midst of a historic shift, a dramatic reshaping of the terrain, a decline of US leadership in the world and a commensurate rise in Asia. I write this in the midst of a global financial crisis that most of the world's politicians would have you believe is temporary. Things, we are told, will turn around. I will not argue with that. I am here to tell you, simply, that things are unlikely to turn around permanently in your lifetime. The staggering debt loads in many countries will lead to major changes in the way we all live and work. Many old institutions, traditions, political parties, governments, cultures, even nations will decline or collapse or simply disappear, just as has always happened in times of politica
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February 05, 2013
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