Thursday, November 25, 2010

1984 Revisited (towards an American Police State)

In 1984 the United States invited the Cayman Islands Government to sign a formal contract (“the Narco Agreement”) requiring Cayman’s cooperation in the tracking-down of the proceeds of narcotics trafficking. The two sides argued back and forth for a while, until Cayman suddenly capitulated. It was rumoured that the US had threatened to body-search every passenger arriving in Miami on flights from Cayman. That would have destroyed our Offshore industry overnight.

Well, here we go again. This time, America has turned one of its Federal police agencies loose on all air passengers everywhere. Body searches are suddenly the order of the day, all over the country. The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) has brought the flavour of 1930s Germany to the airports of “the land of the free and the home of the brave”.

Passengers must submit to either whole-body radiation scans or intimate physical probes, feel-ups and gropings. The scanning machines concentrate radiation on the surface of the skin and just below it, so are far more intensive than ordinary X-rays; they can trigger skin-cancers in vulnerable individuals. Particularly susceptible are foetuses in wombs, children, and persons with “impaired immunity” such as those who have already had cancer. Cancer Society- your comments and advice, please.

The intimate probes, feel-ups and gropings are collectively called “gate rapes” by bloggers. There are fears that STDs and other diseases may be spread by the contact of much-used rubber gloves with several victims’ genitals. How intimate was the inspection of the latest “client”, exactly, and how easily could the next in line become infected? And the next, and the next, until the gloves are changed? (The gloves are to protect the gropers, not their victims.)

Babies and children are not exempted. Children of any age can be taken away from their parents by TSA goons for private molestation. What a shock for little kids to learn that strangers in uniform have free access to their bodies – in the security lines at airports, for the moment: later on, who knows?

As if this wasn’t bad enough news for Cayman’s tourism industry, the TSA intends to extend the program to cruise passengers. In due course, Owen Roberts Airport will be required to install the scanners, and perhaps our cruise passengers’ landing-places will too. Local security personnel may be recruited to make the gate-rape inspections. Oh dear. Sandra’s Sex-Offenders Register may need extra pages.

It’s not just our overseas visitors who will be affected. We who live in Cayman can calculate the effect on our personal lives. Long weekends in Tampa may become less appealing; flying to Miami to give birth may become dangerous. Grandchildren’s visits to Cayman may become more expensive. One of my two young granddaughters carries the breast-cancer gene. The radiation scanner might kill her; sexual assault would traumatise her.

What to do? The US is no longer a safe transit point. Next time the girls visit us, they will have to fly into Cayman from Toronto or Kingston or London – assuming those places do not copy America’s path to mass radiation. Or Cuba, or Honduras- OK, that’s five places.

Three times during our youthful travels, my wife and I managed to bluff our way out of a country whose exit formalities we found onerous. Two of the countries were within the Soviet Empire; the third was an Arab dictatorship. On none of the occasions were our body-cavities at the slightest risk of unwanted exploration. The Amerikan [sic] Empire is breaking new ground.

“1984” is here at last.

Later. In March 2013 I posted another blog on the same general theme, this time relating to in-transit foolishness at Heathrow on the way through to Norway.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Wasting Space (Cayman's Civil Servants)

Over the course of a thirty-year career, each Civil Servant costs the taxpayers the best part of two million dollars. Half of that would be salary, the rest medical expenses for the whole family plus pensions, expense accounts, office rent and other overheads. It all adds up. Whenever MLAs are looking for ways to reduce Public Expenditure, they should close down useless positions before they start cutting wages across the board.

Of all government employees, the most useless must surely be the public-relations personnel. Every Department seems to have at least one, and GIS (Government Information Service) has a staff of twenty. If they all quit tomorrow, we would be not a jot less informed about our governance. The only genuine damage their absence would cause is to the vanity of our politicians and senior Civil Servants. Does that vanity justify adding an extra $100 million or so to our Public Debt?

The job of GIS and the Departmental Press Officers is simply to make their superiors look good. In pointing that out, I mean no personal disrespect to all these purveyors of glad tidings. They keep themselves busy, and their professional skills are adequate. Unfortunately, their work is utterly unproductive. Their press reports are ephemeral make-work, of zero value to the community. Frankly, we’d rather have the money that’s wasted on them all.

We can judge their efficacy by the reputations of the government units they serve.

Education Dept. The average government-school pupil possesses skills inferior to the average private-school pupil. Logic and common sense would therefore suggest that the private schools send inspectors to grade the government schools’ standards, instead of vice versa. The average standards of reading, writing and arithmetic in our government schools are appalling; the average standards of general knowledge of the outside world are worse. The Department’s publicity people are a waste of space.

Immigration authorities. Their reputation is quite high with native Caymanians but abysmally low with almost everybody else. They are viscerally anti-expat, and much of their famed incompetence is actually malice. What is the point of a public-relations team that aggravates the divisions within our society?

Dept of Tourism. Its public image is of an endless swarm of boondoggles, on which it wastes tens of millions of dollars each year. The tourists it brings in could be brought by a team of three on a couple of hundred thousand dollars – one per cent of the present budget. Its press releases do little more than boast of its extravagances.

Cayman Airways. Its entire budget is wasted. All its public-relations unit can do is keep this dead parrot nailed to its perch. Which it does very well, it must be said. Squeezing $1000 a year out of every man, woman and child in the native-Caymanian community just to keep the parrot looking alive, is a triumph of propaganda. Those skills would be worth a fortune in the private sector.

Protocol Office. Somebody was lucky enough to catch the FCO’s clerk-in-charge on his way from one padded cell to the next. The Cayman public is split fifty-fifty on whether to laugh or cry.

Financial Secretary’s Portfolio. I’m not sure that it still has a Press officer; if it does, he learned his communications skills from the Trappists. It is left to our Auditor General to tell us that there are no timely internal audits or checks of any significance, no up-to-date Financial Statements, no reliable Budget figures, and no responsible management of Public Revenue, Expenditure or Debt. Total chaos.

As for the Police, well, hmm... What good has a public relations officer ever done for the Police’s image?

Thursday, November 11, 2010

The Welcome Wagon (Cayman's anti-immigrants)

McKeeva has promised to tweak Cayman’s anti-immigrant rules and procedures. I wonder how many foreign investors are comforted by that. Better some minor tweaking than none at all, of course, and we should be grateful for small mercies. But we need to bear in mind that all changes will be limited in duration to the term of the present Government.

The proposed changes aren’t supported by the Opposition Team. It is in thrall to the anti-immigrant lobby infinitely more than McKeeva’s Team is. The PPM will accuse the UDP of pandering to the expats, and will vow to revoke the changes after the next election. The proposed changes won’t be supported by the Immigration authorities either. Anti-expat sentiments are pretty much an essential pre-requisite for job applicants at the Immigration Department. The Department’s demographics reflect that- if it has more than six immigrants in its ranks, I’d be surprised.

The Department is autonomous, for all practical purposes. It determines its own policies. It exercises the power to choose which bits of the Immigration law to observe and which not. Its officers (allegedly) are allowed to give sub-rosa help and information to their friends and families. The immigration-related Boards and Committees are packed with cronies. They accept their appointments in order to wield power over their and their business rivals’ Work Permit grants- allegedly. Most members lobby fiercely for the jobs.

The proposed changes won’t alter the general practices on the ground, by either the Department or the Boards. All MLAs know very well that the changes have but one purpose- to persuade a few virgin investors to buy Cayman property before they have time to recognise the trap for what it is. Immediately after the 2013 election, the new Cabinet will reverse the changes- probably back-dated.

Our politicians are experienced in the art of retrospective legislation. After all, the starting points for the Rollovers were back-dated six years. A fair number of foreigners who had bought land and houses suddenly found themselves under notice to quit. Does anybody believe the same thing won’t happen again? The grants of Status in 2003 were within a whisker of being revoked, years after the grant- so the promised grants of “Permanent” Residence should not be relied on overmuch.

It doesn’t pay to under-estimate the power of the anti-expat lobby. Foreign investors who buy land and houses this time around- on the promise of the tweaked rules and procedures- will wake up one morning to find the regulations and policies back to what they are now. Our next general election is thirty months away. Is it even worth making the effort to relax our Immigration procedures if they are doomed to expire in thirty months?

Maybe, maybe not. Some new investors and new residents will be persuaded. However, as soon as the reforms are reversed they will quite likely go away again, angry at falling for the confidence-trick. Look McKeeva and advisors, by all means tweak the rules, but don’t do it without carrying the Opposition with you, and the Immigration bureaucracy too. Get your priorities straight!

First, create a climate of welcome for foreign investors– and only when you have succeeded in that should you roll out Cayman’s welcome mat. It doesn’t make any sense to do it the other way round. On the plus side, you have an impressive armoury. You have a National Investment Council (NIC) and a National Advisory Council (NAC), and there are rumours of a new Finance unit charged with disparaging Ireland as a tax-haven alternative to Cayman.

Well, with a NIC, NAC, and a Paddy-whack, we should be in good shape. If all goes according to Hoyle, somebody might throw us a bone.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Cargo Cult (Cayman's education failure)

An alarming number of born-and-bred Caymanians seem to believe that our Offshore tax-haven could survive the replacement of all (or almost all) its expat administrators by born-and-bred Caymanians.

“How difficult can this work be? Most expats have to be trained by Caymanians anyway, on half the salary. Those who criticise Cayman, send them home and let our people do the work themselves.”

Well, no. Some Caymanians are sophisticated and experienced enough to work in senior positions in the tax-haven industry, yes, but not nearly enough. The rest of them are wishful thinkers. 

Nearly thirty years ago my wife and I worked and lived in an archipelago in the South Pacific. One of the islands was Tanna, famous for being the home of a strange local cult dedicated to the worship of a Messiah they called “John Frum”. The cult was invented by some groups of native Melanesians as a way of explaining the appliances, cars and heavy machines, and the planes that carried them, introduced to the islands by white invaders – especially American support troops during the Pacific War of 1941-45. 

With no concept of how those products came into existence, the cult ascribed their presence to magic – pure and simple. Their former belief-system was abandoned as false (since it had failed to account for the machinery), and the villagers bent their minds to understanding how the magic worked. If they could discover the trick, they could conjure up the products without the intervention of any foreigners. When the Americans went away (promising to return, as Americans do) they left behind the fruits of their magic, which they had called “cargo”. The villagers tried to maintain the equipment, the way they had been taught. How hard could it be, after all?

They failed, and have ever since waited patiently for their man to return and disclose the magic formula. In 1972 the village we visited had a mock airstrip and a mock plane, and they met every so often to check whether John had snuck up on them overnight. As they learnt from the Christian missionaries, a few decades is not a long time to wait for the return of a Messiah. 

Many in Cayman are on the cusp of following the same path, in respect of our tax-haven. Those who have worked beyond the narrow confines of Cayman know there is no magic involved. But those who believe that tax-haven expertise can be picked up from a few evening classes at UCCI might as well be in a cargo cult. It beggars belief that our politicians pay so much attention to the anti-expat lobby at this pivotal moment in our economic history. Yes, the lobby commands a great many voters; but it is pursuing an obviously lost cause. Pursuing lost causes is a distraction we can’t afford. 

Our Offshore industry is reeling under an onslaught from the governments of high-tax nations. Our rulers must somehow find the courage to defy the cultists of the anti-immigrant lobby. Even the government of that South Pacific archipelago (called Vanuatu, today) resists the demands of its local cargo cult; why can’t our government resist the demands of ours?

Sometimes it seems as though our MLAs would rather rule a broken and busted Cayman than not-rule a prosperous one. They turn a blind eye to the slow drift toward the exits, of Offshore professionals and other middle-class immigrants. It’s never easy retreating under fire, so there will be no fuss or fanfare from the departing expats. After all, they have cars and houses to sell, and they want good prices for them. We who remain will have to live with the damage wreaked by the cult.

Good luck to us.