Monday, December 27, 2010

Leaders And Followers (Cayman politics)

One of the most irritating things about our local politics is that people are always begging for leadership. Why do they do that? Small towns like ours (14,000 voters) don’t need political leaders, except for occasional specific purposes. Even then it’s unlikely we’d choose from among our professional politicians, if we could avoid it. Maybe we need a Cabinet spokesman, but we don’t need a political leader.

A leader is a boss, not a figurehead. The most obvious government leaders in Cayman are probably the Chief Immigration Officer and the Commissioner of Police. Nobody tells them what to do. They decide where they want their minions to go and for what purposes, and (figuratively) they lead them there. I’m not sure whether our Governor is required to be a leader or not. The FCO decides general policy for the governance of Cayman. Our Governors do have some discretionary power, though they rarely use it. Perhaps their function is merely to be FCO spokesmen.

Are we all sheep, that we need leaders to tell us what to think and do and hope for? Can’t we think and do and hope for ourselves? Apparently not.

This topic is very relevant at the present time. Our MLAs- elected by a third of the total adult population- are hopelessly out of their depth in the present economic recession. They truly haven’t a clue how to cope with it. McKeeva (elected by eight MLA cronies as their spokesman and occasional leader) is fizzing around like a fart in a bottle. Kurt (elected by four MLA cronies as their nominal leader) is doing whatever it is that Kurt does. They’re not leading anybody (besides the cronies), and that’s all right because they don’t have to. We don’t need leaders.

What we need are policy-makers with enough financial nous and prudence to cut out government extravagance, especially off-Island expenditure. We need policy-makers with the courage to defy the anti-immigrant lobby and reach out to newcomers for advice on immigration matters. The proposed changes to the Immigration Law will do absolutely nothing to ease the tensions between native-born Caymanians and our ethnic minorities. We need politicians with a sense of responsibility towards the whole community.

We need politicians who genuinely believe in the virtues of free private enterprise and who scorn the vices of big government. Government’s proper job is to monitor the private sector, not to compete with it or to try to micro-manage its payrolls. That’s socialism, bordering on communism. Stop doing it.

We need politicians who are self-confident enough to rise above personal vanities, and strong enough to ignore the siren-call of corruption. Cash-corruption and crony-corruption are killing us, down here below the Ivory Tower. Senior public servants (i.e. bureaucrats and MLAs) should never be paid more than taxpayers can afford to pay them. The accrued public-service pensions and medical benefits are well set to bankrupt these islands. There are American towns our size that are going broke each week, because of pension-fund deficits. The writing is on the wall for us too.

Instead of political leaders, we need representatives- a few good men and women with enough smarts to know we’re in trouble and enough sense and courage to pull the plug on government extravagance. Only the sheep among us should disagree with that.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

More Immigrants, Please! (Cayman needs them)

McKeeva and his advisors are absolutely right in asserting that Cayman needs more immigrants. Without a higher population, our economy will be hard put to recover to its former level.

We also need more long-term stakeholders. Keeping immigrants in a state of uncertainty does no good for the economy. There is nothing wrong with rollovers in principle; many immigrants roll themselves over every few years anyway. But expelling those who don’t want to leave (or not right then) is stupid, regardless of what level of society they belong to. It is a slap in the face not only for the individuals but also for Cayman’s hopes of a stable society. The stench of resentment hangs over all the expat communities, and that’s a serious obstacle to progress.

One hears talk of a population ideal of 100,000. Well, that’s just a guess. One never hears what nationalities or occupational skills or ages or family sizes might make up that total. Maybe some secret crony-committee somewhere in the bowels of the Legislative Assembly Building is working on the matter; but, if so, the topic is too hot for any discussions to be made public. Also, too hot to allow any immigrants to be in on the secret discussions, apparently. (Nothing wrong with secret discussions per se, Miss Mary; I’m just saying…)

For a couple of years, long ago, I sat on the Chamber of Commerce’s Economic Development Committee. There were some good and smart people there- a mixture of expats and native Caymanians- but we never submitted a formal report to the Chamber’s Council. Why? Because we were not allowed to speculate on population numbers in any category or in total. The politicians simply considered that a taboo subject.

These twenty years or so later, the taboo is only just being gradually weakened. In between times, Cayman doubled its population under the surly frowns of the Immigration authorities, who delved into a grab-bag of nations for new transient workers. The powerful anti-immigrant lobby has always argued bitterly against increasing the proportion of immigrants in the population. The Lobby has just about every MLA on its side, plus the entire Immigration bureaucracy.

Because of the taboo, nobody ever explained to the Lobby’s members the economic importance of a higher population. It may be too late now. They are too steeped in ignorance and xenophobia to surrender an ounce of their prejudices. Unless McKeeva can drive a wedge between the tribalists and the more worldly Caymanians, and unite the latter with all the expat communities, he has no chance of getting the extra immigrants he says Cayman needs.

Yet gaining the confidence of the expat communities is something he won’t do. He doesn’t quite have the courage, letting ‘I dare not’ wait upon ‘I would’, in Lady Macbeth’s famous words. He might gain a few brownie points by bringing full transparency to all immigration-related procedures, though. He might even get some help from the present Chief Immigration Officer, of all people. She was a member of the Vision-2008 Open and Accountable Government Committee twelve years ago, that urged openness in all such matters. (My “Everybody’s Business” column in this weekend’s Cayman Net News includes some wonderful extracts from the Committee’s Minutes.)

McKeeva might also make a point of involving immigrants in all proposals to change the Immigration Law. The present plan to attract rich retirees as immigrants, for instance, is too lame for words. There are thousands of us out here with better ideas than that.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Bearing Arms (Cayman's guns and criminals)

The right to bear arms is an American concept, dating from the colonial rebellion against Britain. In the earliest days, armed individuals played a crucial role. The British Army despised them for their informalities in the same way that today’s occupiers of Afghanistan despise the local resistance fighters. No uniforms? It’s just not cricket.

It has never been the British way to allow civilians in peacetime to have access to the weapons of war - or to carry any weapons at all, even for self-defence. Instead, there exists a sort of “social contract” between rulers and subjects. A national army will protect the citizenry from foreign invasion, and official Police forces will protect individual citizens from domestic criminals.

Britain’s rulers believe that individual citizens can’t be trusted to act responsibly. America’s various levels of government in general disagree, and the nation’s 1787 Constitution (as ratified and amended) famously recognises the possession of weapons as a basic civil right. American townsfolk may not be allowed to shoot up the heavens to celebrate weddings, but they are allowed to keep weapons in their homes or on their persons, subject to local licensing laws.

There is no general right to possess or carry firearms in the British colony of Cayman Islands. However, there are several categories of persons who can be exempted from the general prohibition. It’s worth taking a moment to look at who these privileged persons are, and who does the exempting.

The best known category is members of the Gun Club. It’s probably unfair to call it a secretive organisation, but it does keep an extremely low public profile; it doesn’t advertise its rules or its officers or membership, or solicit new members. In effect, it is pretty much a self-selected civilian militia. I would guess that its members have to produce clean Police Certificates once a year, but maybe not. Maybe the Police have to approve all members, but maybe not. It's a secret.

We know that the owners and managers of selected businesses are allowed to carry guns to and from work, and to store them at home- unloaded, with ammunition kept separate from the guns. Who grants the privilege is not public knowledge; nor are the names of the grantees; nor are the rules and qualifications. Too many secrets! The Police Commissioner has the authority to permit some Police Officers (including Special Constables) to carry pistols, rifles and sub-machine guns on duty and sometimes off duty. The rules, names, qualifications and circumstances are all closely guarded secrets.

Finally, some private security guards are exempted from the general prohibition. Again, their identities are not disclosed - or the rules governing the exemptions, or who grants them. As to the last, I presume the Governor or one of his local FCO minders does the honours.

One can only guess how many individuals in our community are authorised either to carry guns or to keep them locked away (huh!) until used for the purposes envisioned in the licences. Something between five hundred and a thousand, is my guess. That might be roughly one in every fifty or so residents. Quite a nice little militia, when you think about it.

Current fears of violent crime by gun-wielding thugs are prompting calls for the number of legal owners to be increased in every category. Before that happens, though, we ought to insist on some transparency.

Just out of interest: who issued all the licences in Kingston, over the years? Prominent members of the community, wasn’t it? Isn’t that how the political gangs came about? Those among us who want more people to own guns - let’s get some transparency first.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

The Last Crusade (religious bigotry)

I receive way, way too many mass-circulation e-mails critical of Muslims and their religion. Real hate mail. Apparently they all want to make Sharia Law compulsory for all non-Muslims; they’re all terrorists, and therefore don’t deserve any right to fair trials; they don’t call God by his right name; they dress funny.

Well, I dunno. One of my personal heroes is a Muslim– a brave man who inspired many people to honour freedom and to oppose the slaughter of innocents. That was Muhammad Ali, who famously refused to join the killing fields of Vietnam on the grounds that "No Viet Cong ever called me 'nigger'".

There are 1.5 billion Muslims in the world, and it’s hard to generalise about 1.5 billion people. Hey, it’s hard to generalise about a few thousand Caymanians. There are about 1.5 billion Christians, too, and Buddhists, and Indians, and Chinese, and women drivers who... well, never mind. We shouldn’t generalise about any of them, although we do.

"People are people" is a wonderful expression that I first encountered in Cayman; unfortunately, many of us don’t believe it. Some of us– including several world leaders– don’t really think of Muslims as human people. Would it be wrong to take out seventy million of them by nuking Iran? Naah, let’s do it.

We’ve been here before. The history of the world relates one holocaust after another. Slaughter follows slaughter in an endless, bloody frenzy. We Westerners like to think we’re better than that, but we’re not. As long as there are profits to be made from wars, Western companies will invest in them, often on both sides. When Saddam wanted to gas Kurdish civilians in 1988, Western companies sold him the gas. The shareholders must have been pleased with their dividends that year.

For those of us who believe in religious tolerance, it’s tiresome to have to read about the hammering of poor, wretched Muslims all the time. The emails never mention that Western armies have already slaughtered over a million of them in Iraq, and forced another three or four million into refugee camps. I do wish the emails wouldn’t keep telling me what a violent religion Muslims have.

Apparently, their god is an incredibly violent god, whose name “Allah” translates as "Death to America". Actually, Allah is simply a singular form of Elohim, an ancient Hebrew name for the gods. The name Allah is used by Christian Arabs as well as Muslim. Jesus called his god Allah. Top that for legitimacy!

The people who send the emails fall into two categories: bigots and sheep. Mostly, they’re sheep, who hate Muslims because their political leaders tell them to. And the reason why Western political leaders do that is because they regard Muslims in general as sub-human, fit only to be ruled by Westerners and dispossessed of their lands and natural resources. Unprovoked invasions and occupations were bad when German, Japanese and Russian armies did it, but good when American and British armies do it. Go figure.

If the official conspiracy theory is correct, nineteen Muslim terrorists took down the Twin Towers in 2001 with planes, and Building #7 with debris. Somehow, nineteen morphed into 1.5 billion. Somehow, those few Saudi fanatics were regarded as representatives of the entire world of Islam from Indonesia to the westernmost shores of Africa. Somehow, a single act of terrorism came to justify the most monstrous mass tortures by the very nations that once sponsored human rights and fair trials.

I’m not sure about this, but I don’t think many of the West’s professional torturers in Guantanamo and Bagram are Muslims. I’ll have to ask the next person who sends me a hate-email.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Everybody's Cheating (Cayman's protectionism)

Sooner or later, our politicians will have to take the brakes off private-sector productivity. Government’s labour-control policies make our local cost-of-living much higher than it needs to be. The same policies make the unemployment of native Caymanians worse than it need be, and create the glass ceilings encountered by those who are employed. When will the policies be changed – or, won’t they ever be?

McKeeva has criticised the various labour-control Boards, but the real problem is that they are too unaware of basic economics to know what to do and not to do. The Boards’ members change from time to time, but not one of them has the combination of courage and knowledge necessary to blaze the path that’s best for Cayman and Caymanians. That is a sad judgment on them.

As a tax haven, Cayman ought to be a capitalists’ dream. But capitalism as a business system relates to productivity and return on investment; and our political system works against those things. Government runs its state operations on classic Civil Service principles, whereby specified services are made available to the public with scant regard for productivity, and none at all for return on investment. Our rulers apply public-sector (socialist) principles to private-sector practices through the Immigration Law.

That Law requires private employers to hire Caymanians with minimal regard for their education, aptitude or attitude; and to promote them with minimal regard for their productivity or contribution towards profits. That requirement amounts to a social contract between government and each private employer. Government allows the employer to trade in Cayman, in exchange for hiring and promoting people whom he otherwise would not employ. It’s a contract that both parties cheat on.

The government (comprising FCO clerks, local Civil Servants, and Caymanian MLAs and their crony-committees) discriminates among businesses, denies Work Permits to foreign employees at will, and disallows the firing of Caymanian employees for any reason. That’s cheating. Local employers (company owners and managers) retaliate by not hiring Caymanians if they can possibly avoid it, promoting as few of them as they can, and by withholding genuine executive authority from those whom they are forced to promote. That’s cheating, too. Both of the contractual parties cheat.

Jobs for life and promotions not based on competence are features of Civil Service employment; but private employers do not willingly hire people they can’t fire. (The old Caymanian slavery tradition comes into play in respect of low-skilled workers from overseas. They can be fired out of hand, with no regard for the Labour Law or any other law.)

The contract and the cheating have existed for forty years, more or less. The government side keeps tightening the Immigration Law and the guidelines for the Department and the crony-committees. The employers keep reinforcing the glass ceilings. If government’s negotiators had the long-term interests of Cayman at heart they could significantly lower both the cost of doing business and the cost of living, pretty much at a stroke. Unfortunately, they are constrained by their stubbornness, their economic ignorance and their loyalty to their political sponsors. Consequently, they are driving Cayman down a dangerous road.

Lost sight of in all the frenetic scheduling of First Class trips to likely sources of overseas investment, our local labour-control laws and regulations actively discourage further investment in existing local sources. Of all the dumb things that our politicians and senior bureaucrats do and allow to be done, that is surely the dumbest.