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A Peorian Makes Sense of Turkey

Growth trumps (nearly) all.

Sep 8, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 48 • By IKE BRANNON
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In my quest to write an article about my family vacation to Turkey and thereby write off part of the cost, I came up with an observation I deemed worthy of David Brooks or Malcolm Gladwell. It turned out to be dead wrong.

Resort sprawl on Lara Beach, Antalya, Turkey

Resort sprawl on Lara Beach, Antalya, Turkey

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I had taken my wife, children, and in-laws to an all-inclusive resort on the shores of the Aegean for two weeks. My wife’s from Turkey, and her parents still live there. Our holiday was marvelous—the place had pristine beaches, great pools, nightly entertainment, activities for the kids, and amazing food, as well as bars with free drinks by every pool and beach. It was far and away the most expensive vacation of my life, but being able to afford it represents the only thing I’ve ever done that has impressed my in-laws.

Late one night, while my wife and I sat in the outdoor bar with other parents and a smattering of teens, I noticed that there was a distinct absence of drunk people in the resort. Given that the price of the booze was zero and that there were a number of couples sans kids in the place, it didn’t make sense to me. Having been trained as a social scientist, I concluded it was because of the virtues of those of us who could afford such a resort. What constitutes a pricey vacation for an American represents something much more exclusive for families in Turkey, where average incomes are a fraction of what they are in the United States.

No one was getting drunk because all of us coffee achievers must be self-abnegating individuals who have sacrificed a lot to attain our station in life. We got where we are by being able to think rationally and drink sensibly, I reasoned.

While I was patting myself on the back for my acuity, my wife noticed something more obvious: The resort watered down the drinks. After a few rounds of tequila shots with no ill effects, I had to agree that my theory was all wet.

That this possibility never occurred to me has something to do with my background. My family once operated a drinking -establishment in my hometown of Peoria, and I have friends there in the industry. Tampering with the booze is not countenanced.

Last year I met up with some old Peoria friends, who clued me in on the goings-on of a former neighbor of ours. He had opened a bar that had become quite popular, in part because of its incredibly low drink prices—$1 shots of top-shelf liquor. A bartender at his establishment told one of my drinking companions—who’s in the booze business himself—the secret: He was putting cheap liquor into high-end bottles.

My friend was aghast. Back in the day, this was a sin that wasn’t merely settled by the liquor board: Bad people who packed heat would mete out justice themselves. The days of goons taking matters into their own hands may be largely gone, but my friend was worried for our old neighbor and had stopped off at his bar to advise him to cool it.

A few weeks later the bar burned down, and our old neighbor’s remains were found in the ruins, his body riddled with knife wounds. Eventually, a culprit was found, tried, and convicted. The ostensible motive was a different peccadillo altogether, but the sordid affair reinforced my notion that there are still iron rules—a ban on watering-down drinks being one of them.

While I can blame my bum call on the lack of drunks at our Turkish resort on my hometown experiences, I’m not the only Peorian who has misunderstood goings-on in Asia Minor. In the early 2000s Roy Gardner, an influential economist from my hometown and an expert on the European economy, published a well-received paper entitled The Enlargement that captured the perspective of most European Union watchers. He suggested that Turkey’s population and piddling economy at the time made its entry into the EU impractical. 

Gardner, a good friend who passed away in 2012, argued that the EU worked only insofar as its members were similar in population, economic might, and general orientation, and that Turkey’s standard of living and 70 million-plus population were vastly dissimilar from the rest of Europe. For Turkey’s accession to make sense, he averred, its economy would need to grow at 6 percent a year for at least a decade, which he wrote off as impossible.

But it did precisely this, with its economy quadrupling in size during a period in which the EU’s economy practically stood still or—in the case of its neighbors Greece and Cyprus—contracted. Of course, the latter two remain adamantly opposed to Turkey’s joining the European club, and Turkey has lost enthusiasm for it as well in the wake of its boom decade.

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