Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Memoir: Economist or Evolutionary Biologist

According to a legendary story, Fidel Castro, having taken over the Cuban Bank, was asking his advisers whether there was an economist present. Ernesto "Che" Guevara raised his hand, and Castro put him in charge of the bank. Later, Fidel commented: "I didn't know you were an economist". "Oh", Che replied, "I thought you said a communist".

Although Fidel knew Che well enough to know that he was a doctor, so this story is probably not true, it is still significant that, according to John Lewis Gaddis in We Now Know: Rethinking Cold War History , it was not only told in the National Security Council on March 10, 1960, buy also it shows up in Andrei Gromyko's Memoirs...

I am sure you are all wondering how this will relate to me: It is very late 2005 or very early 2006 (you'll see why I am so confident on the date below). I am sitting down in my office at TEPAV, trying to finish a report, when suddenly I get a call from my boss Guven, asking me to come to his office at the CBT (he was a member of Monetary Policy Council, or MPC, at the time) right away, and that we would be heading to the State Planning Organization (SPO) for a meeting with the Econ. Minister for the projects we would like to undertake with the SPO. I am in deep trouble, as I have a 5-day beard and a Yale Crew sweatshirt on. So I grab the tie and jacket I keep in my office and head to Ulus. In Ulus, I buy a white shirt for 20 liras, get a shave and head to Guven's office, where I swap the sweatshirt for the sweatless-shirt... We then head to SPO.

Guven heads in, and I am told to wait outside. Having rushed, I had not brought in any paper and pen, so I  borrow those from the Undersecretary's secretary. I have the thick Economist Christmas issue with me, so I am thinking it'd be comfortable to take notes over that if I am not seated at the meeting table.

I am called in; as I enter Abdullatif Sener, the Minister, remarks to Guven, who was obviously recounting him my CV right before: "You introduced our young friend here as an economist, but he looks like an evolutionary biologist to me. Suddenly, the whole room is dead quiet, and I have no idea what the guy is trying to say for a few seconds, until I remember the cover of the Economist, which was facing the Minister as I entered the room:
The guy was "probably" joking, but that wasn't a good introduction to someone who is a Creationist, I guess...

Anyway, the meeting starts, Guven presents our proposed projects, and the Minister asks abruptly a specific question on one of the projects, which I alone can answer. So, Guven passes the ball to me. I talk for a while, stop to breathe, and commit one of the gravest, if not gravest, errors in Turkish bureaucracy: I address the Minister with his name, as Abdullatif Bey. This is an absolute "no no", with the proper way being "Esteemed Minister". Although I vaguely knew of the rule, I was too involved with answering his question.

In less than an hour, the room is dead quiet again, again thanks to me. The bureucrats are looking at me in disbelief. Luckily, Guven is a very skilful talker and manages to get the attention away from me.

Just to make it clear, I am neither a communist nor an evolutionary biologist, although evolution was my favorite part, along with ecology, of high school Biology...

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