Good or Bad for the Jews

"Good or Bad for the Jews"

Many years ago, and for many years, I would travel to Morocco to visit uncles, cousins, and my paternal grandmother. Some lived in Tangiers;...

Saturday, March 30, 2013

The Pillage People . . .

So many things going on, and I have less and less desire to comment on them. I would rather fiddle around with my beloved Corvette, clean my Kimber .45, store my ammo, and practice head shots to defend family and friends in the coming zombie apocalypse. That said, I will take my cod liver oil and produce, uh, some remarks.

The western world continues on a totally unnecessary suicidal path. What was once common sense is no more. Everywhere one looks, the insanity is evident: The refusal to deal with real issues and the insistence on taking up marginal or even totally extraneous issues instead is stunning. Here in the USA, our economy remains stagnated for no logical reason. Instead, for example, of freeing up the exploitation of our vast fossil fuel resources, we continue to push money at phony green industries, throw road blocks in the way of our private sector's ability to get those fuels, block importation of fuel from our friends in Canada, and blather on and on about discredited, voodoo science global warming. Our leaders rulers take lavish vacations on our dime, push ruinous tax and spend policies, including the criminally destructive Obamacare, and avoid cutting even a bit of our bloated spending. A hypothetical "threat" to reduce ever so slightly the rate of growth in spending is declared disastrous and the equivalent of a nuclear attack. We get wrapped up debating gay "marriage," and "control" of mythical "assault" weapons when neither of those topics has any bearing on real issues facing the vast majority of real Americans, as opposed to Hollywood's fake Americans.

And Europe? Ah, yes, Europe. What can we say about the "cradle" of our civilization? Not much positive. For at least the past 250 years or so, the Europeans have seen their collective insanity grow at an exponential rate. They seem determined, even more so than we, particularly in the past fifty years, to erase all vestiges of western civilization and principles from their quaint, colorful and increasingly irrelevant little countries. This motley collection of has-been, never-were, and never-will-be states goes from one lunacy to another. Some of the latest, of course, being the combination of anti-natalist policies and open immigration policies. This lethal cocktail has changed the nature of Europe's society, and turned parts of European cities into "no go" zones resembling the urban nightmares of some third world countries--and Detroit, but then I repeat myself. The phrase Old World is now a literal description of Europe--if, that is, one leaves aside the booming Muslim population. The self-destructive continent that brought us Communism, Fascism, Nazism, two world wars, the Holocaust, the cold war, and a colonial legacy that continues to create problems throughout the world, also has brought us the ultimate "social-democrat," supra-national nanny state, the EU. This weird Marxist-Fascist attempt to destroy what was left of Europe with bureaucracy, taxation, and "homogenization" has been wildly successful. Europe likely will never recover from the ravages of the EU and its obsession with replacing the dollar with the euro.

I have written before about Cyprus, and before that on the euro. I won't repeat all that. I just want to note that the situation is even worse than what I had thought initially. While it seemed that depositors with more than $130,000 in Cypriot banks would lose about 40% of their money, the percentage keeps climbing. It now seems it will be for some over 60%. The latest scheme has depositors forced to accept bank bonds valued at 37% of the value of their deposits in excess of $130,000. In essence, the banking system in Cyprus has been put to death. I don't know whether the banks there were good or bad. Perhaps they were run by cruel, heartless overlords so vile that they oppose gay marriage, smoke cigarettes, love fast cars, eat red meat, and refuse to believe Al Gore. Hard to believe anybody could be that evil, but perhaps. Was this the depositors fault?

Interesting also, and almost ignored in the press, is that the proximate cause of the Cyprus crisis/bail-out was the way the Greek crisis/bail-out was handled. Let me explain.

The politically driven creation of the euro ensured shady bookkeeping. There was no way that countries such as Greece, Spain, Portugal, and Italy (even France) were going to meet the budgetary requirements ostensibly demanded by membership in the euro. Everybody involved in the project knew that, but for political reasons they accepted the phony accounts as real and put on a brave Bernie Madoff front in public. You can do that for so long until the world economy goes into a recession--sparked, truth be told, by certain pronounced levels of economic insanity in the United States. The phony accounts came to light and--presto!--crisis. Making matters worse was that the political leaders decided that at all costs they had to save the euro. Instead of allowing countries to return to their own currencies and establish market dictated values for those currencies and their economies, the rush was on to keep the euro alive. I have previously written about the Greek bailout but just want to draw attention to the fact that persons and institutions who held Greek bonds, in other words those who had lent the Greeks money in the belief that the EU sanctioned national accounts were accurate, were forced by the bail out provisions to take a huge "haircut." The value of their bonds was slashed by fiat. Guess who held a big chunk of Greek bonds? Yes, my friends, the banks of Cyprus. Wonder why they then went into crisis, hmmm? I guess they deserve it for believing EU politicians and statistics.

We have in other words, rolling crises. The manner in which a crisis is handled in one place, produces a new crisis in another. The manner in which the Cyprus crisis is being handled is going to produce other crises. In Cyprus, we see restrictions put on the movement of money. So, therefore, while in theory the euro is an international currency, in practice euros in Cyprus are restricted to the island. So if you are an account holder who already has seen the EU take about 60% of your dough, you find that you cannot take out what's left. We now see rumblings in Spain and Italy of politicians there looking at a similar wealth grab. France's hapless government will not be far behind as President Hollande tries desperately to come up with new and creative ways to grab more revenue for France's collapsing public sector.

All this goes to show that perhaps it takes a pillage to wake up people to the cold hard economic facts. Those facts are the same as they always have been:

1) You cannot indefinitely spend more than you have;

 2) If you squeeze the goose that lays the golden eggs too hard, you will kill it.

Not difficult to understand, unless you are a politician.

Thank goodness that in the USA, we are not trying to emulate Europe. We would never come up with some crazy socialized medicine scheme that would completely bankrupt our public sector. Nah, that could never happen here.

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

On Gay Marriage

As a self-declared libertarian with an asterisk, to wit, one who wants the government out of as many aspects of our lives as possible while supporting a big and mean US military capable of turning our enemies into puddles of goo and piles of ash and rubble, I am somewhat conflicted on the gay marriage issue. I am using this post not to reach any conclusion or advocate any position, but to lay out my own confused thinking. Think of it as 21st century therapy for someone who usually does not write about these sorts of topics.

I really don't care what consenting adults do to each other on their own time and dime. I, furthermore, support decriminalizing, oh, heck, legalizing drugs, and ending the absurd "drug war" with which I have had years of experience. Drug use should be a matter for individuals, health professionals, and the private sector, e.g., if you don't want your employees using, you have the right to fire them for using. I do not see it as a matter for legions of bureaucrats, consultants, cops, prosecutors, and jailers living on the taxpayers' dollars. I favor rescinding nearly all anti-gun legislation, and find that the evidence supports the view that more guns in the hands of law abiding citizens means less crime and insecurity. I want taxes and government spending reduced drastically, and I want an end to the dominance of the liberal philosophy that sees life as a series of problems that needs government solution. As I have said before, the President of the United States should matter more to our friends and enemies abroad than to Americans at home. We should have an Uncle Sam, not a Daddy Sam.

Let me turn now to today's garbled topic, the issue of gay marriage. It is not a simple one of right vs. left. We see Republican libertarians supporting the idea of gay marriage, and black churches, stalwart supporters of the Democrats, opposing it. It is not only about "civil rights" or government power over our lives. It is about the shape and future of basic institutions developed over thousands of years. Its proponents demand that marriage be completely redefined from what it has been in the western world for hundreds if not thousands of years. Whenever such a change is demanded, it is good to resist it. Long established institutions have been long established for a reason, to wit, they presumably work or at least perform a socially useful function. Demands for radical changes in basic institutions should face obstacles, and should be required to make the case that the end result will be "better," however one defines "better." The marriage institution, of course, has been under pressure for a long time. The introduction of no-fault, easily available divorce being one of those pressures. Changing public mores, too, have brought the venerable institution further into question, e.g., in the United States, the most socially conservative of the western nations, nearly half of all children are born out of wedlock. The challenge to marriage posed by these changes has produced negative social phenomena: The correlation between single mothers and poverty is very strong; children from single parent homes have a host of problems not the least being increased criminal tendencies.

To demand a complete redefinition of the institution, in my view, puts a burden on the demander to show that there will not be a further increase in serious social pathologies (e.g., what is the impact on children?) for which we will all pay. In addition, of course, redefining marriage away from the one-man-one-woman equation means opening it not only to gay marriage but to polygamous marriage and perhaps other constructions at odds with traditional western values. If marriage is no longer the union of "one man and one woman," with what moral or logical justification do we restrict it to just two people? The proponents of gay marriage have to answer that.

Redefining marriage would have major legal and economic consequences. They are too many to list exhaustively, but we see implications for tax policy, for immigration law, for benefits of various kinds, for the issue of who might be required to testify against whom in trial, and many others. This is not a simple matter, and its proponents do themselves no favor by trotting out hysterical arguments about human rights, and ignoring the details.

For now, I oppose redefining marriage from its current definition. On the other hand, I don't like the idea of the state deciding who can live in a marriage-like arrangement. I can see a compromise in which the state acts as the enforcer of some sort of contract between people who decide to live together, the details of the arrangement being up to the individuals. I see no reason for the state to force churches to conduct gay weddings, any more than I think it right for the state to force, say, a Catholic Church to marry people who are not Catholic. The state, of course, would still have to define the issue of benefits and tax policy, and that would be a battle royal.

I would also like to see numbers on how many people we are talking about. How many gay marriages would we see? Given that heterosexual couples are less inclined to marry than before, why are gay couples so eager? Or are they? Is this all a stunt meant to undermine a major institution of our civilization? I don't know.

There is no clean answer to this. I certainly do not have it. I hope that others smarter than I will. Anyhow, I promise to avoid these sorts of discussions in the future.  They are not my forte.

Saturday, March 23, 2013

Chicago, Cyprus

The situation in Cyprus and by extension in the mighty land of unicorns and griffens, AKA the EU, grows weirder by the day. Now the proposal is for Cyprus to seize 25% of the "big" bank accounts in order to meet the conditions for an EU bailout designed to prevent the collapse, well, of the EU and its fairy dust currency, the euro. Read the battle of the press releases between the government of Cyprus and that of Germany for some fascinating comedic reading, which could help wipe out all of our savings but at least we will be laughing and saying, "We told you so!" Also read some of the leftist/pro-EU commentary, including in the "New York Times," arguing that, oh well, Cyrpus is not REALLY all that important, and is only a tiny percentage of the mighty EU economy, and if Cyprus leaves the euro it will mean nothing except lots of poverty in Cyprus, and . . . ah, the sound of whistling past the graveyard.

But, alas, all is not well here either in the Land of the Free. The USA and the EU have been in a brutal competition to see which one of us is first to ruin our economy and that of the world. The EU has held the lead in the race so the USA brought in a Kenyan socialist ringer to help us catch up. We have made impressive headway and cut into Europe's lead, but still there is no beating European politicians' hundreds of years of experience in screwing things up. We just can't beat them, yet, so we have to settle for smaller prizes as we train up to be in the big leagues.

One of those smaller prizes is none other than Chicago. Wasn't it just a few weeks ago that the Chicago teachers were on strike? Weren't they unhappy with being the highest paid, least worked, and probably least productive teachers in the United States? They wanted even more money, less work, and fewer demands to prove that they had any positive effect on the youths in their care. They got all they desired. Now, the great wheel turns, proving that once again, even in Chicago, there is no free lunch. It seems some 50 or so schools will have to be shut down, plus others restructured, to meet a ballooning one billion dollar deficit. Any talk of rescinding the teacher's raises or limiting their compensation? Nah . . . this is Chicago, let the kids take it on the chin. On second thought, I guess the teachers do get a "free" lunch.

We are getting better at this economic ruin game. EU look over your shoulder; we are gaining on you!

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Welcome to Dogpatch

Getting ready to do some traveling so my already light blogging will go lighter, unless I can get that damn IPAD to work right.

Anyhow, I have been in a deep funk for several days now. I was going to write another of my little autobiographical pieces of life in the Great Abroad, but I am in a foul mood. That mood was not helped by my pre-travel haircut this afternoon. I hate haircuts. I hate going to "hair salons." I guess barbers have gone the way of travel agents, telephone repairmen, dodo birds, and conservative Republicans. The nice but chatty lady who cut my hair insisted on playing, "Guess how old." OK. It started with her. She looked fifty-five or sixty to me, so I "guessed" thirty-five; she, I note, was holding a razor in her hands, and I was unarmed. That pleased her, but my answer instead of putting paid to the silly game, lead her to expand the exercise to make me "guess" the ages of all the other hairstylists in the shop. I, of course, low-balled my estimates, as I just wanted to get out of there. As you can guess, it happened: She pointed at one lady who looked fifty-five or so, and naturally I "guessed" forty-five. She, of course, was not yet forty. That produced no end of uproar in the shop as all the others ribbed her without mercy. I was lucky to escape with my ears and jugular intact.

To make things infinitely worse, I have resumed reading and watching the news reports. Bad idea. I have been reading about the crisis in Cyprus. Not too many years ago, of course, "crisis in Cyprus" would have meant some anti-British riots, or a clash between Greeks and Turks with hapless UN "Peacekeepers" doing what they do best, being hapless. Such as story would have been a local "crisis" with perhaps some implications for NATO, and produced lots of speechifying at the UN. Now, of course, thanks to the wondrous EU and their euro obsession, a "crisis in Cyprus" has an impact on my retirement savings. We have, it appears, returned to the days of the global implications of the assassination of the Archduke--seemingly small developments in small countries can have global implications.

The euro is on German life support; the now straining but still impressive German economy has been called upon repeatedly in the past few years to save the euro. Every few months it seems, there is a "unique" crisis in the EU that requires a "once only" remedy to save country X, Y, or Z from collapse and save the "Euro Project." That "once only" remedy always seems to require the frugal and hard-working German ants to cough up the cash to save their grasshopper neighbors. There seems no end to the "unique, once-only, never-again" crises requiring the assistance of the Great German ATM.

You can look up endless stories on the crisis in Cyprus; I won't bother repeating all that. Suffice it to say that this week's crisis requires a bank bail-out of some €10 billion. Cyprus, not unlike some Caribbean islands, Panama, and Monaco, has an opaque and huge banking sector way out of proportion to the size of its population and economy.  Clearly, a great deal of money from high tax countries goes to hide there. As the press never tires of repeating, a lot of Russian money goes there, and that seems to have upset people who apparently prefer that Russian money be taxed so that Putin can do "good" things with it. Part of the bail out deal contains a proposal to tax bank deposits in Cyprus from about 6.7% to about 10%, depending on the size of the deposit. In other words, a wealth tax. People are told to resist wild consumption, to scrimp and save, and then once taking that advice, the bureaucrats come along and take yet another slice. Fair, right? Punish those who save. Makes sense?

Regardless of whether you have sympathy for Russian billionaires (Note: I rather have them put their money in Cyprus than in Putin's coffers, but that's just me) the idea that the bureaucrats feel entitled to your money EVEN after you already have paid your income taxes should put you off your breakfast. I find extremely repellent that the government takes a chunk of your estate after you die and that it also now feels entitled to take a slice of the money you have left after you've paid taxes. There is no allegation I have seen that says that the Cypriots and others who have deposited their money in the banks have done or been convicted of something criminal.

All that philosophy aside, if you haven't been put off your breakfast by issues of fairness, consider the incredible stupidity of the bureaucrats who announced this policy. What did they think would happen? Panic, run on the banks, anybody? Anybody? Bueller? If you're going to steal somebody's money don't tell them ahead of time. Now there is a huge uproar and talk of the bureaucrats backing off. I see. Who will feel safe even if THIS time they don't raid the accounts of savers? Would you believe them? The cat is out of the bag; their intentions are clear. Trust is destroyed, and trust is the essence of banking and, of course, of the paper, i.e., fiat, money we now have all over the world. Our money, be it the dollar, the pound, the euro, the yen, works because we trust that it works; we take it in payment for what we sell because we trust that others will take it in payment for what they sell. That's it. That's the mystery of paper money: it is a faith-based institution. We use and save that money in accord with certain rules. When the powers that be suddenly talk about changing the rules in the middle of the game, we begin to question that money, and whether we should trust it to the institutions set up to handle it for us. Savers in Spain, Greece, Portugal, and Italy are already looking askance at their own savings institutions and we could see a run on those banks this week if people become convinced the Eurocrats are desperately seeking money anywhere and everywhere. How long before somebody gets the same idea on this side of the Atlantic?

All this debate, of course, ignores the big elephant in the back seat of the Audi: the euro. The only way to put the weaker economies of Europe on the road to mending is to get rid of the euro. It is, no doubt, an incredibly complicated thing to do and involves a lot of economic and political pain. Countries such as Spain, Portugal, Italy, Greece, Cyprus, and others, nevertheless, would be much better off with their own currencies which would float to their real values in terms of the currencies of their trading partners. Not doing that means we are going to be whip-sawed by these crises every few months.

Another elephant is the issue of borders. Yes, borders are good things. They promote competition. Even inside the US, our state borders mean that money and people, for example, can escape the insane tax and regulatory climate of California and New York and head to saner climes, e.g., Texas, North Dakota, Florida. Imagine if all states were required to have the same tax and regulatory environment: Do you think it would be closer to that in Texas or that in New York?

As Li'l Abner said long ago, "The country is in the very best of hands."

Anyhow, be back in a few . . .

Thursday, March 14, 2013

The New Pope

Disclaimer: I am not Catholic. I comment with trepidation.

The Cardinals have picked an Italian Pope without picking an Italian Pope. It seems that the temporary break in Italian dominance of the position is ending via this choice and we will soon be back to normal.

That little snark aside, Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio is an interesting choice. He is the Buenos Aires-born son of an Italian immigrant father and an Italian-Argentine mother. Politically he has raised passions pro and con on all sides of the great political and social divides in the Western world. He has been accused of being a retrograde right-wing collaborator with the Argentine death squads during the "Dirty War"; of being a quasi-leftist campaigner for social justice; and of seeking better Catholic-Jewish and Catholic-Muslim relations. Some critics claim that his overly blunt and perhaps impolitic manner of opposing Argentine "same sex marriage" laws ensured their passage. He also has taken a strong stand against abortion, which is sure not to please certain persons. In other words the jury is still out, and nobody really knows what sort of a Pope he will become.

The task of the Pope, any Pope, in the modern world is an unenviable one. Does he stand like a rock against the tides of changing fashion and flexible moral standards, or does he "modernize?" Some see the first stance as leading to irrelevancy; some see the "modernization" tack leading to a "me-too" approach that also results in irrelevancy--this is not unlike the debate over the future of the Republican Party.

I don't pretend to know the answers and can only wish him well. I would note that a predecessor of his, John Paul II, played a major role in the liberation of hundreds of millions of persons with his anti-Communist stance, which almost cost him his life at the hands of an assassin. For that, all of us, Catholic and non-Catholic, owe an immense debt of gratitude to the Papacy, and, therefore, are reminded that whatever the critics say, the Pope need not be irrelevant to the great issues of the day. 

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

"Dead Men Don't Drink Water."

He wouldn't give up. He kept putting the bottle to the man's lips. The water would pour down his chin, onto his chest, the bed, and the floor. My colleague couldn't stand it anymore, and yelled at the young intern, "Stop it! Dammit! Dead men don't drink water!" A bit of wisdom that we all would do well to remember.

The time, early third millennium. The place, Sri Lanka, formerly Ceylon. It was a tough time in that beautiful island nation. The war between the predominately Buddhist Sinhalese government and the Hindu Tamil Tigers had gone on for decades and still went on and on, with unknown tens-of-thousands of dead. The Tigers controlled maybe 20% of the island and ran their piece of it with an iron fist. They had a highly sophisticated and well-armed military force--mostly equipped with North Korean weapons--that gave the Sri Lankan army, navy, and air force no end of trouble. The Tigers could fight both as a conventional force and as guerrillas/terrorists. Among other things, they had perfected the suicide vest. We had seen a steady parade of these, many worn by women. The vest was controlled by a Tiger-made battery-run timer that once powered up could not be turned off; attempting to remove the vest would detonate it.

While the Tigers were relatively careful not to target foreigners, especially Americans, Canadians, and Britons (much of their funding came from expats in those countries), when dealing with suicide vests that spew ball bearings in crowded places, how do you define careful? The Diplowife, for example, missed getting mangled thanks to her inability to arrive on time. Invited to a ladies' tea, something she detested, she was to be picked up by a couple of other invitees. Running late, of course, at the last moment she called to say she would take her own driver. Her friends skipped our residence only to drive right into a blast. A suicide bomber, being chased on foot by the police ran into the middle of the street and detonated, killing the policeman closest to him and spraying two passing cars with ball bearings and bits of his own body. Those vehicles contained the Diplowife's friends on their way to the tea. One woman absorbed several ball bearings as well as pieces of the car; her driver, also hit, nearly bled to death. The Diplowife, who was supposed to be in that car, arrived at the tea, which, of course, could not be cancelled, just as a gardner was hosing the blood and flesh off the other car.

After years and years of this, the war had become about nothing; better said, the war was about the war. Every atrocity by one side fueled the other's passion for more war. When the British departed Ceylon in early 1948, they left a country with the highest per capita GDP in Asia. It had one of the world's highest literacy rates, and was widely seen as a model of peaceful democratic rule. A young Lee Kuan Yew, who would go on to become one of the truly great statesmen of the latter half of the twentieth century, saw Ceylon as the model for Malaya and later Singapore. That did not last long, confirming my long held belief that people do not want to live in paradise. A country with no foreign enemies, a benign climate, ample resources, a great education system, and nicely plugged into the world economy soon degenerated into a bloody civil war. Sinhalese politicians resented that the Tamil minority, thanks to their higher proficiency in English, the country's official language, did better economically and in terms of university admissions and plum government jobs than did the Sinhalese majority. In the 1950s, Sinhalese politicians changed the official language from English to Sinhalese, made it mandatory for universities, and began to change the country's place names to Sinhalese; Buddhism gradually became the state religion in all but name. The country's old romantic and evocative name of Ceylon was discarded and changed to Sri Lanka. An active discrimination was launched against the Tamils in government jobs and contracts. The reaction was fierce. The war was on. What justice there had been in the origins of the Tamil revolt was soon washed away by a wave of extreme violence directed against innocent Sinhalese people. The Sinhalese retaliated, and the vicious cycle commenced. I won't go into the duplicitous role played by India in the whole crisis, a role which greatly exacerbated the suffering in Sri Lanka, and led to the 1991 assassination of India's Rajiv Gandhi near Chenai, India by a woman Tamil Tiger suicide bomber.

When I was there, we worked with the Norwegians to find a political settlement to the crisis. We were operating under instructions that ruled out military victory. I remember sending an analytical message saying that military victory over the Tigers was entirely possible; it was just a matter of how many casualties one wished to accept. My cable did not go down well in DC. The dominant wisdom was that the war's end had to be negotiated. After many hits-and-misses we hit on a formula that I called the "Milton Friedman Plan." It would leave aside the big political issues and try to end the isolation of the Tiger controlled region. It would focus on economics. We sold it to the government with the theory that the end of military checkpoints and blockades, and allowing free travel throughout the country would in the end benefit both the Sinhalese majority and the by-now impoverished Tamil minority. It would undermine the iron-grip that the Tigers had on the zone they controlled. Let the market dictate without the politicians getting involved. The Tiger side reluctantly accepted the formula because of the extreme hardships being endured in the Tiger controlled regions, and because the tide of war had begun to swing against them. They needed a break. They, for example, had lost control of the ancient city of Jaffna to a determined and very bloody Sri Lankan army campaign. I remember visiting the city after it had been secured. I had never seen such urban devastation outside of a city run by US Democrat party politicians. Jaffna looked like a tropical Stalingrad; there was barely a building left unscathed by explosives or not pockmarked by bullets. Unexploded ordnance seemed everywhere. The Tigers occasionally still would lob artillery rounds into the city.

The Norwegian brokered deal, with the strong backing of the US and the UK, did, for a time, lead to a halt in the fighting. The country breathed a sigh of relief. The lights came back on in Colombo, and the ubiquitous military patrols and roadblocks were halted and dismantled. I was asked to drive out to the old city of Trincomalee and see how "peace" was working along the east coast. The area around that old city and former British naval base had been a center of the fighting. We had orders to check on the status of the Muslim population in the region, given the many reports of both sides considering the small Muslim minority as an enemy. I won't go into too many details of the drive; suffice it to say that it was long and colorful and provided anecdotes with which I have bored people at cocktail parties for years. I went with a colleague from the political section and a young, bright and eager intern. We stopped along the way at the British cemetery and paid our respects to the British and American sailors buried there from WWII. Despite the fighting, both sides had respected the cemetery, and it was in surprisingly good shape. As we moved along the highways, our large white Chevy Suburban would draw the attention of Tigers; dressed in black and usually two to a motorbike, they would swarm around our vehicle trying to peer in through our heavily tinted windows at the strange occupants within. We would drive on like a big white steamship escorted by playful porpoises--if one imagines playful porpoises carrying RPGs and AKs.

We visited Trincomalee and then began a drive down the coast to Batticaloa stopping along the way to visit the local Muslim population. The leader of the community was a distinguished doctor who arranged a meeting with Muslim dignitaries for us in a local hospital. He had a long table, loaded with food and drink, set up in a narrow airless hallway in the hospital. There must have been some thirty or forty dignitaries invited, along with the press. My two colleagues from the embassy and I sat at the head of the table with the host. The TV camera lights added to the intense heat in that stuffy hall.

One speaker after another rose to give us his--they were all men--views on the current situation in the country and the world. The speeches were long, flowery, and very repetitive. Each speaker ignored what the previous one had said, and each had pretty much the same to say. One speaker about three chairs down on my left rose and gave a particularly long and flowery address; he grew increasingly animated as he spoke, his face getting redder and redder, with the veins on his neck bulging as his oratory grew in loudness and intensity. He stopped mid-sentence, sat down, and closed his eyes. I noticed that he immediately urinated. The other speakers looked at him, applauded, and the next one rose to speak. I leaned over to our host, a doctor, mind you, and asked, "Is he OK?" The doctor replied, "He gets very emotional. No problem." About five minutes later, the man sitting next to the now very silent previous speaker, began to shake him, and announced, "I think he's dead!"

That silenced the speakers and a commotion ensued as the dead man was taken to one of the hospital rooms. For some reason our intern followed the procession very closely carrying a bottle of water. The man was laid out on a bed, and our intern began the activity noted at the outset of this post. He seemed not to want to acknowledge that death had paid our little group a visit, and insisted on trying to get the dead man to drink a bit of water. It didn't work.

We returned to the table, and our host announced the sad news to the others. The next speaker rose and began to give his speech. My colleague from the political section had had enough, and said, "No! The meeting is over!" We gave our condolences to the group and headed to our waiting Suburban. The intern still clutched his water bottle and seemed genuinely puzzled by what had happened. "He wouldn't drink the water," he said several times as our vehicle began moving out.

Thursday, March 7, 2013

Y2K and The Great Sequester Panic of 2013!

And they say that other generation was "The Greatest."

Harrumph! I beg your pardon!

That other generation only had to deal with fascism, nazism, and Japanese imperialism. Do you know how many apocalypses I have seen and had to handle in my sixty years? Why it's, uh . . . well . . . at least . . . well, it's a helluva lot, that's how many! I don't have enough fingers and toes to count them all.

Here are a few, and just a few, of the many apocalypses I have encountered and overcome. One of my earliest memories of an impending apocalypse was the strontium 90 (90Sr) crisis of the late 1950s and early 1960s. We were all getting massive doses of 90Sr in our milk and water because of above ground nuclear testing; our teeth and hair were going to fall out; we were all going to end up looking like a cross of James Carville, Alan Cranston, and Pete Postlethwaite. I managed to survive. And I haven't even mentioned how I handled and survived the constant threat of nuclear war for some forty or fifity years: I spent my early youth diving under school desks in anticipation of Soviet nukes. Those desks were very well built back then as evidenced by the fact that I survived (or maybe it was because . . . nah, it was the desks). Then we were told that pollution was going to kill us all; we would have to survive a massive global cooling caused by the particles in the air blocking the sunlight. Then, in no particular order, I had to deal with race riots, SARS, AIDS, anthrax, and global warming. All of them were going to destroy us all! I have handled them all--don't worry about those any more.

My favorite all-time panic, however, wasn't any of those. I loved, absolutely loved the Y2K panic. It was my favorite--did I mention that? You remember that crisis right? As the calendar clicked over from 1999 to 2000 all of modern civilization would come to a halt. The presence of "00" was going to prove too much, just way too much for our poor computerized society. Our machines would crash! Our robot slaves would collapse or go berserk! The only solution was massive government spending! All those FORTRAN developers were yanked out of their rest homes and brought back to fix this disaster.

I remember being in the State Department and the panic was palpable. State, along with all sorts of other government agencies, got millions from Congress to help us deal with the dreaded "00" apocalypse. That crisis cost me my New Year's party for 1999-2000. I was forced to work that night along with others monitoring the collapse of Western society. There was no "party like it is 1999" for me. We had big charts with "red," "yellow," and "green" columns for different stages of preparedness for different aspects of society. We had spent millions developing these charts, and we had to be up all night ensuring that our money had been well-spent. I spent that night in the Embassy in Panama, monitoring the impending collapse of the Canal--this despite assurances from the engineers that the Canal operated on late 19th century technology and that back then engineers did not fear "00" or any other numbers.

The evening was a bust. The sun rose on the year 2000. The birds sang. The ocean waves waved. We had nothing to report back to anxious Washington DC--assuming DC had survived that horrid and dangerous night. We had to report something. So being the Diplomad, I reported as though it were April 1. I had noticed that my car had gathered an exceptional amount of dust overnight; I attributed it to the horrors of "00." I also noted that the omelets at a local five star hotel had been overdone--"00," obviously. And so on. I rediscovered that DC has no sense of humor. The anxious apocalypse watchers did not appreciate levity, or a reminder of the millions they had spent on nonsense.

You know, on second thought, despite having declared Y2K my favorite panic, I might be in the process of changing my mind. The Great Sequester Panic of 2013 is rapidly moving up the charts. It seems that because the government cuts a tiny percentage from its projected growth in spending, it's all over for us. I never realized how we all lived on the razor's edge! A slightly less robust growth in deficit spending means that my children will be eating fish loaded with mercury, airplanes will be flying without air traffic controllers, every illegal alien ever detained will have to be released, the US military will have to stand down, McDonald's will be serving donkey burgers, all children will get left behind, seniors will fight for scraps of offal, and on and on and on. This all goes to show how incredibly efficient the government is; it can do all these things with about $82 billion! Without that sum, all must come to a halt. Never mind the other $3 plus trillion--I guess those don't count.

Yes, I am going to enjoy this panic.  I can handle it.

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

The Father Buries His Son: Chavez is Dead

It seems Hugo Chavez finally and formally has died. No more Schrödinger's Cat, both dead and alive at the same time. 

A smart, savvy, unscrupulous street thug with natural political and leadership capabilities, Chavez had hoped to be the heir to the Castros' "Revolution." Instead, the old hermanos gallegos in Havana watch yet another politician, another pretender to their throne, shuffle off while they remain--thanks largely to Chavez's largesse with Venezuela's oil wealth which saved the Castro regime from the Castro regime. The parents bury their son.

Chavez was both an old style Big Man and a new style media star. He knew how to provoke the United States just enough to establish his street credentials with the left and the dopes in Hollywood, but not enough to share the fate of Manuel Noriega, Osama Bin-laden, or Saddam Hussein. He set up a classic peronista system of populist rhetoric, class warfare, and a tolerance for massive corruption by the inner circle. Using a skillful political ju-jitsu, he took advantage of Venezuela's democracy. He used the language and theater of nationalism, revolution, and populism to become Venezuela's most successful corruptocrat, all the while decrying Venezuela's propensity for electing corruptocrats. Proclaiming his love for democracy, he bit-by-bit dismantled Venezuela's democratic institutions and suppressed the opposition. While spouting a nationalist creed, he surrendered his country's sovereignty to the Castros, drug traffickers, and terrorists--all the while making sure that he did not damage his access to the US market and the dollars he needed to be the "anti-American" star of the left.

In short, his was a bravura performance which has left Venezuela awash in debt, crime, and poverty--the signature achievement of leftism everywhere in the world.

Sunday, March 3, 2013

"Not From a Good Family"

I have a teenaged daughter: smart, funny, well read, multilingual, intensely patriotic, acerbic or charming as needed, and--woe is me--pretty. Lots of drama, of course, as teenaged girls seem vying for Oscars 24 hours a day. They all carry the Meryl Streep gene.

Having such a daughter creates a four-letter problem for me, to wit, boys. I don't like them around her; I don't want her talking about or to the vile creatures. I know what boys are like . . . sigh . . . probably a losing battle. Since, therefore, it seems highly unlikely that we will get rid of the boys, the least the Diplowife and I can do is make sure she dates one from--drumroll--a "good family." How to tell if the daughter is dating someone from a "good family"? That is the topic of today's 99% politics-free post.

A warning: After all these years, my memory is an improperly scraped and reused palimpsest. Bits and pieces of the previous mix in with the later. Hard to keep it all in exact chronological order, but here I go.

The place, Guatemala. The time, 1989-91. I worked at the Embassy for a terrific political appointee Ambassador--now sadly deceased--and had a great job, great friends, great guns, and an adventuresome life for a relatively young man. The political situation in the country was highly unstable. We didn't know it at the time but the big Communist guerrilla movements were in their death throes; what we saw was that they still created a lot of mayhem both in Guatemala and in neighboring El Salvador. I remember one visit to El Salvador: warm tropical night,  floating on an air mattress in a friend's pool, smoking a good Honduran Don Tomas, watching the helicopters overhead pumping tracer rounds into the mountainside while a Special Forces buddy floating next to me explained, between drags on his cigar, what was happening. In Guatemala, too, I remember eating at a nice outdoors restaurant in Ciudad Vieja, while a T-33 dropped bombs on guerrilla positions in the nearby hills. War as a spectator sport; war as pre-entre entertainment; war as a vignette. No real thought about real people killed and injured.

Guatemala City lay under a thick fog of unease, more than the usual for that troubled place. The guerrillas had hit the power lines, causing intermittent blackouts; the death squads were very active; ordinary criminals were taking advantage of the unrest; home owners and businessmen were taking the law into their own hands, setting homeless men on fire, and having hit men kill street urchins and vagrants. We had the kids sleep on the floor because of the nightly gunfire, most of it from drunk or spooked guards in neighboring houses. To add to the festivities, somebody had brought crates of Chinese grenades. These soon began showing up in the oddest places. A store got held up at "grenade point." In another store, the owner defended his establishment by throwing a grenade at the would-be robbers. One morning somebody in a passing car flung one of the things at the Embassy; it hit the perimeter wall, bounced into the street and went off with a window-shaking roar. Who was behind it? Nobody knew. Lots of theories; lots of explanations; no resolution. The grenades continued to go off.

So what does one do under these circumstances? Go out to dinner. Guatemala City had an amazing number of superb restaurants. One night, the Diplowife and I were having such a dinner at an excellent Mexican restaurant in the city's "Zona Rosa," when we heard some shots, and a very loud crash followed by a blast. The mariachis stopped playing, and the waiters froze . . . for about a second, and then the music and serving resumed. We had finished eating and were paying, so the Diplowife said the appropriate thing to do was to go see what had occurred. We walked down the street towards the El Camino Real Hotel; a crowd had gathered at the entrance, cars, police, military . . . and us.  We made our way to the front of this crowd. Two cars had collided. The driver of one was dead in his car, apparently shot by hotel security. His passenger had flown through the windshield and landed in the street. The grenade this passenger had been carrying had gone off, blowing away his hand and shredding the side of his head. He lay face down in the street, his pants part way down his legs.

The Diplowife surveyed the scene and offered her professional verdict, "He did not come from a good family. He is wearing red underwear. "

So now, my friends, you know. Before you allow your daughter to go to the movies with that kid she met at school, you check the punk's underwear. If it's red, throw him out. If, of course, he happens to be carrying hand grenades, you might also use that datum to question your daughter's judgment in boys.

I provide the above as a free public service for the parents of teenaged daughters.