Thursday, May 26, 2011

Not Enough Cake (Cayman politics)

It’s amazing how often Caymanians have to be reminded that we are a British colony. The CNS website is packed with protests against Britain’s insistence on a balanced government budget. “Imperialism!” “Slavery!” “Exploitation!”

In fact, our colonial status is secured by a contract freely entered into by our Caymanian legislators. All the terms are clear and out in the open. There are no hidden protocols. What you see is what you get. Britain is in charge of Cayman’s finances- and indeed everything else. It delegates some areas of responsibility to the local MLAs, but all legislation still has to be approved by our Governor before it comes into force. He is not the token figurehead some Caymanians think he is. Sure, he must do what he’s told by the FCO; our MLAs have no authority over him.

This reality is apparent in the current squabble over our government’s 2011 Budget. The FCO is withholding its consent until it sees evidence that government’s core operating expenditure will be less than its core operating income. For years, the British government has privately warned successive Cayman Islands Cabinets against over-spending. The warnings had no effect. It was like telling little boys that eating too much cake will make them sick. Well, our little boys did eat too much cake, and now they’re sick. At least, they’re sick with anger because Mummy has taken the cake away.

Most communities of our size in the world are constitutionally required to balance their budgets. There’s nothing unique about Cayman in that regard. Our figures are a bit bigger than the typical small community, but we’re not unique in that, either. There are plenty of communities of 50,000 people in the UK and US that are as rich as we are, per capita. Unfortunately, we combine high Public Revenue and Expenditure with a high level of governmental incompetence. Like the little boys and the cake, our MLAs’ eyes were bigger than their stomachs.

Now they must choose between higher revenue and lower expenses. Reducing expenses is the sensible choice, if they could but see it. (Let them eat less cake!) Our little boys have over-spent their allowances, and now Mummy is telling them to stop spending. Sigh. That’s what Mummies are there for, though, isn’t it? Raising their allowances would simply encourage them to buy more cake! Which they would eat! And get even sicker! And – ugh – I’m not sure where I’m going with this...

Unfortunately, our little-boy MLAs have never learnt to discipline themselves. They are self-centred and self-indulgent. It’s partly Mummy’s fault. She should have taken the damn cake away long before now. During the past forty or fifty years our local rulers have never had to pull in their horns. The money has kept pouring in as fast as they were able to spend it. They had to burn the midnight oil thinking up new and sillier ways to spend it. God forbid that they should save for a rainy day. The forecast was always bright. We are God’s people. He will never let us down; he will always make sure we have enough cake. Right, God? God? Are you there?

The temptation to build extravagant vanity projects (PPM), the excitement of unlimited First-Class travel (UDP) – “self-indulgence” scarcely does justice to the folly. We have a Premier- oh, my! Brighton Town Council has a Cabinet these days, so it probably has a Premier as well. Titles are depreciating as fast as currencies and college degrees. Generalissimo, that’s what we should write into our next Constitution.

You don’t know whether to laugh or cry. Cry, is my advice.

Friday, May 20, 2011

The Tribal Instinct (grandchildren)

Our two grand-daughters (aged ten and seven) are coming to visit in July for three weeks. It will be bliss for us. They’re lovely girls, and a joy to have around. Even if they were horrible kids, I’d put up with them just to have my son here; but they’re not horrible at all. I adore them, and would without hesitation die for them, if I had to.

It is surely some kind of genetic instinct, to love one’s grandchildren- a simple extension of the instinct that makes us protect our own children. Except that in my family’s case, the older girl was inherited. She carries none of my genes, or my son’s. My genetic instinct really should not allow me to love and protect and cherish her as much as her younger sister. Yet it does, and I do. Assuming I’m not deluding myself about that, my loyalty to the older one must not be genetic at all, but tribal.

It’s a fascinating distinction. Biologists in general believe that every individual gene is purpose-driven to keep its bloodlines alive. That drive first manifests itself in reproduction, and then in protecting the offspring. Those offspring protect their own interests to the extent they can. And so on down the generations.

But man is a social animal, with a tendency to suppress some of his own personal interests in favour of the interests of his society - his “tribe”. People who don’t do that are called sociopaths. Their loyalty is to their genes first and last, not to their societies. They are reckoned to be “not normal”, to be so obsessively self-concerned. The rest of us are “normal”.

Broadly speaking, it’s a huge ask, isn’t it, for human nature to require that we put society above our genetic instincts and above our families. Men do it almost without thinking. Despite the urgency with which they seek and grasp opportunities to spread their genetic seeds*, only the most wimpish of men will favour his children over his community. Perhaps the urgency and disloyalty are two sides of the same coin. If a man spreads enough seeds, he doesn’t need to worry about their survival.

Biology has mapped a contrary course for women. Mothers’ bonds with their offspring are longer in the binding, and their loyalty is much stronger than fathers’. Paradoxically, it is their genetic loyalty that drives women (in male-dominated societies - i.e. all societies) to permit their sons to conform to male social expectations, at whatever cost to the sons’ physical well-being or moral standards.

We see this clearest in times of conflict between rival societies. Mothers don’t like to wave their sons off to participate in wars of aggression, but they do it all the same. Not to do it would bring shame on those sons, and that would never do. Tribal instincts beat out genetic instincts every time.

In one of our family photo-albums we have a snapshot of our son (then aged seven) winning a sack race at a Prep School Sports Day. In the background is a girl cheering him on and obviously thrilled with his win. “Somebody was glad for you”, I said. “Who is she?” “I don’t know”, he shrugged; “somebody in my House.” Our tribal values begin with School Houses. Siblings assigned to rival Houses learn to value their fellows above family ties. It’s a practice run for the national and religious loyalties demanded in later life.

We accept adopted children into our families in the same way and for the same reason that most societies accept outsiders assigned to them either by their tribal rulers or by circumstances. Most societies...

* As a general statement, women need a reason to make love; men just need a place.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Osama bin Laden

The same day as the events in Pakistan, the Irish SAS carried out a raid on Debenhams Department Store in Dublin. Irish intelligence had reported that Summer Bed Linen was on the Third Floor.

Besides all the corny jokes, there is one good thing to have come out of the US Navy Seals’ assassination of an old man in his home in front of his 12-year-old daughter. That is, the American authorities have established their right to execute anybody at any time in any place, without trial. Well, it’s a good thing if you’re a US patriot who believes that the rule of law doesn’t apply to The Empire. Not if you’re not, perhaps.

Considering the number of professional torturers in the US Armed Forces and associated Agencies, it seems thoughtless of the Seals to have killed him immediately. Presumably the victim’s wives and children will be introduced to the joys of water-boarding and anal rape (and why not?), but surely it would have been just as much fun to do it to the old man. God help Osama’s former cooks, barbers and valets scattered throughout the American gulag. From Guantanamo to Bagram, the screams will thrill an entire generation of CIA thugs. What tales they will have for their kiddies at bed-time.

A man walks into a bar and asks for an Osama bin Laden. The barman asks, “What’s in it?” The man says “Two shots and a splash of water.”

Whoever was in charge of the Seals’ operation should have thought twice before imposing the cover-up, though. Didn’t they learn anything from the JFK fiasco? The thing that makes the official version of that incident so dodgy is the assassination of Oswald. Almost fifty years later, most people in the world believe that Oswald was a patsy, and that the government lied. If they had kept him alive, they could have tortured him and his wife and his mother and the fifty nearest crippled orphans until he confessed. Or until one of them confessed. If you snuff the man you identify as the criminal, you can never close the credibility gap. As one blogger put it, Barack Obama is our Jack Ruby.

Killing the man advertised as being the master-mind of 9/11 means that the official version will always have its doubters. Sure, they shot somebody, but who was it?

There’s a photograph doing the rounds showing a boundless sea with a black sandal floating on top. The subject-line reads “Proof of Bin Laden’s death.”

The same people who are assuring us that it was bin Laden that they assassinated once told us that Iraq had WMDs. A million dead Iraqis later and four million townsfolk living in tents in the desert- still no sign of WMDs. They also told us that the tightest national defence system the world has ever seen was bamboozled by nineteen barefoot boys with box-cutters, without inside help or connivance. And, that WTC Building #7 crumbled to dust in its own footprint under the weight of odd bits of debris from the Twin Towers. It might have been worth pulling a few fingernails to discover how Osama’s goat-herders managed that engineering miracle.

The scary thing is that they (“They”) don’t seem to care whether we believe them or not. I am not being anti-American here, by the way, just anti-thug. Oh, and anti-psychopath, I guess.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Politics in Education (in Cayman)

It’s disappointing what low priority our MLAs grant to educating Cayman’s children. It should be at the top of the list, but it’s not. Political control of the private-sector workforce has always been their top priority. Cayman Governments’ labour policy ever since the 1973 Protection Law has been to keep wages low for unskilled workers. That goal was inherited from the merchant-politicians of old, and has never been abandoned.

The goal is achieved by means of the indentured-labour system, which the British Colonial Office first introduced into the Caribbean sugar-plantations to replace slavery in the 1830s. It was discontinued eighty years later on humanitarian grounds, on the initiative of the Government of India. Yet today unskilled migrant workers are assigned to Caymanian employers who are permitted to set wages and conditions with no guidance beyond their own consciences. The only government monitors are the ruthlessly pro-employer Immigration bureaucracy and crony-Boards.

By the natural law of economics, low wages for unskilled foreigners result in low wages for unskilled Caymanians. It is no accident that so many true-born ethnic-Caymanian workers are frustrated with their lot in life. The state schooling system was never designed to educate them beyond a token level. The standard of the system’s graduates is so poor that without the birthright-entitlement written into the Immigration Law, many of them might never be employed- at least in the offshore sector.

Why do Caymanian MLAs allow this situation to continue, year after year? Don’t they care? Apparently not. Politicians, everywhere, work hardest at minimising the risk of being kicked out at the next general election. For ours, it’s much easier to play the birthright-entitlement card every few years than to even try to change the state’s schooling. The voters must be free to hire domestic servants on the cheap; and if that means low wages for unskilled Caymanians too - well, too bad.

Like politicians everywhere, ours enjoy the power. Who wouldn’t? Cayman is only a small society, but it is awash with money; and power attracts money. Controlling the entire private-sector workforce is an exciting objective and an intoxicating achievement. Nothing could give quite the same rush.

Then there are the portfolios. Being Chairman of the Board of an airline, or a seaport, or a tourism agency, a community health-service, a road-building program, a waste-management conglomerate - all those jobs are a thrill for people who are actually qualified to do them. Imagine their effect on excitable small-town politicians who owe their appointments to a mere thousand or so voters. Man! You talk about a rush?

Chairman of the Board of Directors of a school is a responsible position. Learning all the ins and outs is a challenge to even clever individuals. Being in charge of an entire community’s schooling system and strategy is so far beyond the competence of our Ministers of Education, it’s no wonder they freeze at the thought of changing it. Easier to throw money into vanity projects, and leave reforms for some other sucker.

Recent postings on the CNS website have expressed a lack of confidence in the MLAs of both political parties. Some have gone so far as to suggest that long-term immigrants could do a better job in some areas of governance. The Education Portfolio might be a good place to start.