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The best of times .... the worst of times


LONDON -- Charles Dickens' tale of life in this city and in Paris at the end of the 18th century opened with a line that endures because it is always true: "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times."

The news of the day continues to make one wonder if anything has changed or ever does. The tale of one globe -- these times when we are supposed to be equal and neighbors because satellites above are beeping at all of us -- seems to have the same plot as Dickens' "A Tale of Two Cities."

As reported in European newspapers Monday, it is the best of times if you are an investment banker in New York, the worst if you are a child in Kabul.

"Griping and grumbling"

In Paris, this was the International Herald Tribune headline: "Wall Street Gripes Over Huge Bonuses." It seemed there was "griping and grumbling" on Wall Street, where Christmas bonuses are expected to be in the 30-40 percent range this year.

At one investment house, Goldman, Sachs and Co., 200 partners were expecting bonuses of more than $6 million each, but some will get more than others, and the others are complaining. It's hard to imagine what they do to earn that kind of money, but I know it has something to do with Adam Smith's invisible hand.

In Kabul, the capital of what was once a functioning country called Afghanistan, the local hustlers, the kind who might have been investment bankers in another place, are digging up cemeteries to sell the hands and other bones of their ancestors for a nickel a pound.

The bones go to Pakistan, according to Monday's Times of London, and are used to make soap, cooking oil and chicken feed. That's all part of the global free market. A full male skeleton, about 13 pounds of bones, is worth 7,000 Afghanis (about 50 cents) in Kabul bazaars, and double that across the mountains in Pakistan.

There is hunger in Kabul. People do what they have to do to survive. For comparison's sake, the Times reports that a 14-pound bag of flour costs 32,000 Afghanis, and full-time grave robbers make twice as much as civil servants if they can dig up, with sticks, 28 pounds of bones per day in cemeteries behind the city's mosques.

Most of the diggers are children, who used to dig for scrap iron and steel left in the ground after a decade of war --fighting that was generously financed by the United States when Afghan mujahedeen needed those armaments to kill Soviet invaders. But the Soviets left, and so did American aid. The Afghans have been left to their own devices, and the mujahedeen we helped equip and train are killing each other now.

Brisk business

"The last government banned the bone trade," said a scrap dealer named Nowsher, quoted in the Times. "Then the Taliban came . . . and they banned the export of iron, and few traders risked buying it off the children anymore. So the bone trade has taken off."

The bone selling is illegal, too, but the diggers tell the Taliban that the bones they carry in their bags are from animals and they smash human skulls to hide the obvious.

So it goes. Business is business. Perhaps if Nowsher had been born in the United States, he would be in software and building a $30 million house in Seattle. Some markets are more profitable than others. Perhaps an Afghan Adam Smith will emerge to explain why the labor of Goldman, Sachs' partners in New York is worth so much more than the work of Kabul's bone-diggers in this best of all possible worlds.

Richard Reeves is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 12/12/96

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