GUALFIN, ARGENTINA – “It’s amazing that any of us survived at all,” said Natalio, sitting in the back seat of our truck, holding on to the passenger grip above the seat to cushion the bumps and turns, as he recalled his life in the Andes.
We were driving up through the valley, with bare, stony mountains on either side, and a dirt road snaking through the hills between them.
Natalio, the gaucho injured when a horse fell back on him, seems to be recovering. And we’re getting to know him better.
More on that in a moment… but first, this from Bloomberg:
Bloomberg Economics estimates the 5.5 percentage-point drop in the [effective corporate tax] rate led to a 1 percent boost to nonresidential investment, which added a tenth of a percentage point to gross domestic product in 2018. So without the corporate side of the TCJA, growth last year would have been 3 percent instead of 3.1 percent.
We only bring it up because, yesterday, we argued that Misters Obama and Trump seem to have made the worst “investment” in human history… adding $10 trillion in debt to get $3 trillion in real growth – the worst economic recovery in U.S. history, even worse than the Great Depression.
Today, we see that Mr. Trump’s tax cut… estimated to cost $5.5 trillion over a decade – raised GDP by a grand total of one-tenth of 1% last year… or $20 billion.
But let’s turn back to more serious matters…
In Argentina, as in America, there is an elaborate system of social insurance designed to protect the working class. Until recently, remote ranch hands were rarely inscribed. The former owner of our farm, for example, maintained an almost feudal system, in which he looked after his own people, but in his own way.
If they lived on his land, they were required to work for him for a couple of months per year. He paid them when he had money, which wasn’t often. And he paid in cash, off-the-books.
Foreigners, on the other hand, have to do it “by the book.” First, because they don’t understand the informal arrangements. Second, because they are easy targets for the press and local originario activists. And third, because that’s what they’re used to doing in their home countries, anyway.
So, when we took over, Natalio was added to the rolls of the public insurance program… and we began making monthly payments for him. And when he was injured, the “system” took over.
The trouble was, none of us understands how the system works. And Natalio neither reads nor writes. So, when it comes to paperwork, he needs help.
We took him down to the hospital on Friday, to get an x-ray… and help him through the bureaucracy. But we soon realized that we were not able to make sense of it either… so we called our lawyer, who took charge.
The long drive, however, gave us time to hear the story.
“I was born in Jasimana, over the mountains,” he explained. “They don’t have any ranches there. And no police either. It’s just families with goats, llamas, and wild cattle.”
Jasimana is an almost mythic place… over the mountains to the east of our ranch, largely inaccessible. Until recently, there were no schools. No shops. No restaurants. Nothing.
Periodically, on the internet, Jasimana is offered for sale… a vast tract of a million acres. And woe to the buyer. If he is fool enough, he puts down a deposit to secure the fabulous property before beginning his title research.
Then, he discovers that Jasimana has no title. It is ruled by originarios who have their own customs and understandings; modern land titles are not among them.
“My father came over to Gualfin [our ranch] when I was just a boy. So, I never went to school. I just helped my family. Then, when I was 13, I started work on the ranch. So, I’ve been working for 40 years.”
Natalio had a satisfied smile on his face.
“Back then, we worked two ranches… we raised the cows up here and then took them down to the valley to fatten them up a bit, just like you’re doing now.
“But they weren’t the same cows we have today. They were wild, mountain cows. And there were only four of us gauchos. We’d spend all our time on horseback, or on foot, driving the cattle from one ranch to the other… rounding them up… branding them… and sometimes taking care of them.
“Nobody raises cattle like that anymore. They were spread out over… maybe [50,000 acres]… up in the hills and out on the range. We couldn’t really take care of them very well, not like we do today. They either survived, or they didn’t.
“Sometimes, we’d find one laying on the ground. They eat something… and swell up with gas. We’d go over and stick a knife in their bellies to let the air out. Sometimes they’d survive. Or, we might find a calf being attacked by condors. Usually, it was too late to save them.
“Now, we cut the horns off our cattle. It’s just too dangerous to work around cattle with horns. But back then, we didn’t bother.
“Somehow we all survived, except for Justo, and he died of cancer.”
“We didn’t have any doctors,” Natalio continued, “or any way to get to a doctor. There weren’t any roads… or any cars… The first car we had up here in the 1970s was when Jorge [the previous foreman] got an old 4-wheel-drive Jeep and learned to drive it.
“Before that, once a month or so, we’d take a couple of burros down to town, load them up with sugar, flour, salt, and other things we needed, and come back up to the ranch. It took about 8 hours each way. We enjoyed it, because we got to go to town.
“Otherwise, we were out on the range, or in the mountains, for days at a time. We just made a little fire and cooked whatever we had… and spread out our saddle blankets on the ground, with our saddle for a pillow, and a poncho over us. Today, it sounds romantic. But it was hard. Cold. Windy.
“We’d be out there – just the four of us, me, Jorge, Nolberto, and Justo – with nothing but our horses. And sometimes a thunderstorm would come up. And there we were… on our horses, out in the middle of a huge valley.
“We’d get down into a dry arroyo to avoid getting struck by lightning. But if it rained hard, a flash flood would come down the arroyo, so we had to get out fast.
“Nobody does that anymore. I remember, when you came… we went out to [a small valley near the main house] and camped with you. We were just showing you what it was like. We slept on our saddle blankets. And you had those funny things [sub-zero sleeping bags imported from America].
“But we don’t do that much anymore… except when we have to take care of our own cattle up in the hills [each of the ranch hands has his own herd in some part of the mountains. These animals, like the wild cattle of times past, are practically unsaleable. We have not figured out why they still bother with them].
“Yes… it’s all changed. My time is over. The life I’ve known, I mean. Justo is dead. Nolberto and Jorge both retired. And I’m at the end. My own children won’t know the same life… not the one I lived. They all want to go to the city to work. There’s nothing here for them, they say.
“And now, I’m worn out. All I can do is the work of the regador [the person who spends all day guiding water around the fields].”