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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.

In the 1990s Turkey suffered through a decade of high inflation and economic malaise, and as a response Turks jettisoned the corrupt ruling party in favor of the Islamist party headed by Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who many feared was more concerned with reducing the secularization of society than with growing the economy. But as prime minister, Erdogan delivered growth—plenty of it—and as a result millions of Turks joined the middle class. And not a few of the middle class became wealthy enough to spend a week or two at a pricey resort on the Aegean.

In a conversation shortly before his death, Gardner admitted his failure to anticipate the Turkish economic boom but pointed out that there is so little precedent for what Turkey accomplished that few could have conceived it would enjoy such a prosperous decade while the rest of Europe stagnated.

Our resort—one of a number of new hotels constructed in the last few years in the vicinity—would have made no sense even a decade ago, before Turkey’s economic renaissance. It employs a couple of hundred people: chefs, bartenders, lifeguards, servers, maids, and a raft of other positions.

My father-in-law is an ethnic Tatar, and we were quickly befriended by one of his fellow Tatars who worked at one of the beach bars. Having a friend at a bar where everything is free isn’t much of a boon, but he clued us in on a few things, one of which is that there is a labor shortage in Turkey’s resort industry. Wages
are steadily rising, and new resorts are going up every month, each nicer than the last. Entry-level servers are making almost $1,000 a month, which slightly exceeds the median household income for the country.

Our new friend did make sure we got seats for the entertainment highlight of our stay: a concert by a popular Turkish singer that took place a couple of days before Turkey’s first presidential election. Erdogan, bumping up against his party’s term limits for parliament, was stepping down as prime minister to run for the post, with the intent of making the position, heretofore ceremonial, a more muscular one.

At the conclusion of the concert the singer exhorted the crowd (I was virtually the only non-Turk there) to make sure to vote against Erdogan. Erdogan was as popular with the people at the resort as George W. Bush would be at a Weezer concert in Brooklyn. His record on human rights leaves something to be desired (Turkey has dozens of journalists in jail) and his push to give religious fundamentalists more power and influence has angered many in Turkey’s middle class. But I suspect many of our fellow vacationers went home and cast their lot with the man once again, for a basic reason: Strong economic growth excuses a whole host of flaws in a government.

Erdogan won’t be in power forever: At some point the Turkish economy will pause for one reason or another and voters will assign blame—rightly or wrongly—to the government and hand the reins over to someone else to fix it, along with all the other problems that would suddenly become more glaring in the absence of strong growth. But until that happens his government is safe.

A couple of nights after the concert, a traveling acrobatic troupe rolled into town, and after dinner we headed towards the amphitheater for the performance. In the middle of the show an emcee stepped up to the microphone during a pause to announce that Erdogan had won the election, which was met with little reaction—I suspect because all of us were too busy wrangling children to pay close attention to the announcements. But the other mitigating factor was that nearly everyone in attendance was a beneficiary of Turkey’s exceptional decade, and no one wants it to end. An Erdogan presidency gives hope that the prosperous times—and vacations by the beach—will continue.

During the second act my wife and I picked up our sleepy daughters and carried them back to our rooms, joining a steady stream of other families doing likewise, each of us feeling tired and content and slightly astounded at our good fortune.

Ike Brannon is a senior fellow at the George W. Bush Institute and president of Capital Policy Analytics, a consulting firm in Washington.

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