Friday, May 29, 2009


Two years after the collapse of the Soviet Union I went to live in the new republic of Kazakhstan as the resident adviser on housing and land reform. My primary partner in the new government was the first deputy minister of Housing and Territorial Development, a very bright, imaginative, chain-smoking Kazakh committed to rapid change. He probably gave me more good advice than I gave him, and one piece of it is worth repeating now.

As I tried to get up to speed on existing laws and regulations I asked my counterpart scores of questions. Less than a month into my job he put a halt to my legal questions. “Wallace,” he said, holding his hand up in the halt signal, “forget the law.”

Here was one of the few very honest men in a general sea of corruption telling me to forget the law—the very thing I had been sent to help reform. He smiled and leaned back and looked at me with amusement in those dark brown Kazakh eyes. Should he do this to me or not, he might have been thinking. He decided he should.

He leaned forward and said, “Wallace, we have laws and regulations about everything. You will never know all of them. What you need to know is that you are always in violation.” He settled back in his amused smile and let out a long, sustained stream of Marlborough smoke.

I had started working in the Soviet Union in 1989 and I recognized the moral of the story: when the rules and regulations are too many and too complex and too contradictory for anyone to understand, everyone is a criminal subject to fine or arrest at any moment.

Flash forward. Anyone in America who has to fill out a long form income tax return, and every business owner knows the truth of what my Kazakh client told me. No matter how hard you try, no matter whether you use a CPA or a TurboTax computer program, you are going to have to guess at some answers. Since even IRS help agents often give contradictory answers, it’s not surprising that many honest Americans find out that they have violated the tax law or regulations.

Those laws and regulations are written on some 50,000 pages and have to be reported on over 480 separate tax forms.

Is anyone surprised that almost one in five Americans admit to cheating? Anyone surprised that billions of dollars of small business income changes hands unreported because reporting costs time and money and you are still likely to be accused of cheating. Reporting is burdensome and may be riskier than not reporting.

A 2006 IRS study found that for the year 2001 alone $290 billion in taxes went unpaid, and that did not include taxes on illegal labor and criminal activity. The IRS says the overwhelming majority were middle class individuals—not greedy corporations or their executives. Waiters and waitresses, says the IRS, cheat on 84% of their income. The IRS estimates 57 percent of self-employed income of trades people and small businesses goes unreported.

This year an administration whose slogans include “hope and change” and “yes we can,” have a new slew of tax proposals (not to mention that the man it chose to oversee the IRS conveniently didn’t report tens of thousands of dollars of his own income until nominated and exposed).

Add to the tax mess the fact that the Obama administration is going one up on the Bush administration in adding costly new regulations on almost every kind of income making activity. Under Bush the 2008 Federal Register grew 10% to 79,435 pages. More than 4,000 new federal regulations will be finalized this year.

Back to Kazakhstan. In the January 2000 issue of its in-flight magazine the national airline warned passengers going to Korea not to try to bribe traffic police. The reason? “In some countries corruption is considered illegal.” My Kazakhstani friends who have immigrated to America have all been impressed and pleased that they do not have to bribe government officials, and that public servants are honest and helpful. But as one immigrant remarked when struggling with income tax paperwork, “It was easier back home because you didn’t have to do all this. You always knew who to pay and how much.”

I do not think we are in danger of rampant corruption among public servants, but with hundreds of new tax rules and business regulations, government is rapidly acquiring the uniquely dangerous power to force every citizen to live with his or her neck under the guillotine.

Sunday, May 17, 2009


In the 18 years since I began my still tortured efforts to speak the vast and subtle Russian language I have never found a good translation for the English word neighborhood. When I went to live in the former Soviet Union for the first time 16 years ago I needed this word for two reasons. First, I had been sent by USAID and International Development (USAID) as resident advisor for housing and land reform.

The fact that I found it difficult to talk about reshaping cities without using the word neighborhood may indicate I was a prisoner of my culture where even decaying and crime ridden pieces of a city are thought of as neighborhoods. Well, hoods, but you get the point. Second, the city of Almaty, then the capital of Kazakhstan, had well established neighborhoods that were worth talking about.

Maybe it’s worth telling a story about a neighborhood I knew in Almaty because in its fate lies the central challenge for city planners worldwide.

As resident adviser, finding a place to reside was important as both a personal and professional decision. Like many foreign aid workers, I had a very liberal housing allowance. I could have lived like most ex-pats in a big modernized house or apartment, complete with cook and chauffeur. Given the nature of my work as adviser on housing reform, I believed I should learn what it meant to be a resident rather than a visiting foreigner.

I chose half of a duplexed cottage on a one lane street named for the war hero Oleg Koshevoi in a neighborhood called “Kompot” ( Russian for compote). I know no place in the world that has embodied the meaning neighborhood better than the Kompot, a neighborhood named for its many fruit trees and for streets named after their fruits. More important, the residents who lived in the two or three dozen blocks of tiny ramshackle houses themselves were something of a social compote.

Most of the families in the Kompot had been there for a few decades. My landlady and her first husband had built their 70 square meter home after the war on a tenth of an acre that they had been granted because he had been an army officer. They and the people around them built their own homes, largely with their own labor and often with materials they begged or stole from a government that could not provide them with housing. Here they made their homes and they made their families and they had begun to watch their grandchildren and even great grandchildren begin to grow up.

I chose to be resident there exactly for the reasons the Kompot is now doomed by urban renewal—it was a well established, old neighborhood where children played in the streets and any housewife knew everyone who walked by the gate. A neighborhood.

I was over 50 when I first came to the Kompot, but I knew within a few weeks that I had come home. I was glad to walk through my gate after a long day of work, change clothes and go out into the street and talk to grandmother Kim about her garden or Uncle Vanya about his Lada’s brakes or Mikhail the gulag survivor about samizdat literature and Kazakhstan’s artists. Most of all I felt at home when I played football with the kids where two streets crossed or when we used the electric lines as the top of our imagined badminton net.

I had grown up in such a neighborhood in America during the war when we were poor enough that we had to he

at the house by picking pieces of partially burned coal out of the dirt road where other people dumped their ashes. There was no shame in being poor in such a neighborhood, not any more than there was shame in being short or tall, thin or fat, old or young; Mexican, Armenian, German, or American. I chose to live inthe Kompot because this kind of neighborhood is a universal human garden, always alive with ripe fruit and new seeds.

Yes, a garden complete with society’s evil bugs and weeds, but a place that shelters its seedlings from the wilder world beyond and that nourishes and grows people and friendships. The Kompot, of course, has always been a garden that also grows the usual

vegetables and fruits from which it gets its name. It has been a place full of cherries, pears, apples, apricots, peaches and plumbs as well as grape arbors, currant bushes, berry bushes and vegetable gardens. And wild and cultivated flowers too. But this natural bounty is part of the human garden. Not only do the trees and bushes and gardens feed the human body, but they feed the soul as they grow old with the people who planted them and express the hope and optimism of the people who care for them.

I knew when I moved to the Kompot in 1993 that it was doomed. I told many of my neighbors that soon the Kompot would become one of the most desirable placesin Almaty to live and that it would undergo what we call “gentrification”—the coming of people with money who renovate and enlarge the old houses or tear them down to build new palaces. My neighbors laughed at me as if to say, “Who but we fools and unlucky people would want to live here?”

I was not smarter than my neighbors. I had simply seen the same thing happen to such neighborhoods all over the world. However, I never imagined that gentrification would be forced on the Kompot by planners who decided that they knew better how people should live. I was naïve because in America I knew such planners and their powers very well. Only three years ago we had a celebrated case in the Supreme Court that confirmed that planners could justify the destruction of an old neighborhood to build modern homes and commercial buildings in the name of progress and a better tax base.

In America we are blunt, and the planners say the old neighborhood must be torn down because it is “blighted”. Blight is something that happens when a plant or a garden is infected by a disease, and planners ask us to believe that these neighborhoods are fatally sick. This kind of planning has strewn human and development disasters across America because you can’t destroy the neighborhood without destroying the fertile human garden that the word names.

Maybe соседство (sosedstvo) suggests some of the meaning and nuances of the word neighborhood, but I don’t remember that I ever heard it used to describe a place like the Kompot. A neighborhood is both a place and a state of mind.

I know from experience that planners are intelligent people with good intentions. I also know by experience that intelligence is neither wisdom nor compassion. Planners can build a city, but they cannot grow a neighborhood. A wise American once wrote, “I would rather be governed by the first 200 names in the Boston phone book than by the faculty of Harvard.” And I say I would rather live in the unplanned neighborhood of the Kompot than in any bright and shining city created by professional planners. Why?

After working for 20 years in the former Soviet Union, I understand very well that central planning is limited to the small collection of brains and experience of the planners. It inevitably fails the needs of the much larger community and requires that community to be their collective captives. After living a life time in America, places like the Kompot have underscored our nation’s central lesson—in collective freedom great wisdom works.