Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Trouble in Paradise

In a blog-post of mine back in September last year (2011 – House of Cards) I wondered whether Britain might be preparing to pull the plug on Cayman’s tax-haven, and maybe encouraging our local politicians to go independent. (Which would in effect transfer us to US administration, since the US would never allow an independent little village-state to exist in such a strategic spot.)

At the time, our local rulers had just passed a law exempting them from producing audited government financial statements for the preceding six years. Our colonial masters in London had instructed our Governor to give his formal assent to the Law.

I wrote: If the Governor’s assent didn’t signal Britain’s intention to let Cayman go its own way, nothing will. The disclosure in a lawsuit that our Monetary Authority was no longer monitoring the behaviour of hedge-fund directors constituted another sign... The UK’s meek response to all the open contempt shown to the Governor and his superiors recently, puts the matter beyond all reasonable doubt. In years to come, these won’t be remembered as straws in the wind so much as whole forests blowing away before our eyes.

In light of our recent political shenanigans, it is fair to wonder, again, whether our tax-haven is being set up for destruction. Our present minority government of five elected MLAs and three ex-officio Civil Servants, opposed by the other ten elected MLAs, must try to hang together for the next three months until the scheduled elections.

The recently dismissed Premier and his three MLA cronies seem to be blaming the FCO and its local agents (the Police and the Governor, mainly) for the coup: “Enemies of Cayman!” “British imperialists!” “We will not be told what to do by London!” It all sounds like the slogans of the 1960s, when demagogues led half the British Empire into independence – not abandoning Britain’s authoritarian system of colonial governance, but appropriating it holus-bolus.

That kind of sloganising puts our prosperity at risk. Half a century ago, Britain rarely resisted the demands for independence; one wonders whether she would resist now. Many FCO clerks in London must be muttering to their political masters, “Oh, for God’s sake, let the silly buggers go!”

Cayman has been useful to Britain. As hosts to Britain’s overseas intelligence services, these Islands have for forty years been her eyes and ears in the Caribbean region, and her bankers, too. But there are limits to her patience. From our side of the fence, Britain is crucial to Cayman. She guarantees all our government’s loans, and keeps the interest-rates much lower than they would be otherwise. Even more important: as our colonial power, her presence guarantees that “the rule of law” applies here, safe from any corrupt practices that our local officials might attempt. Well, that’s the theory...

Independence from Britain would kill our tax-haven stone dead, and our prosperity with it. We have a flourishing tourism industry, but it is not nearly enough to keep us in the style to which we have all become accustomed. Without the tax-haven, our Public Revenue would be a quarter of its present level, as would our Public Expenditure, and our population.

Without the tax-haven, we would quickly cease to be the richest little community in the region. We would become indistinguishable from all the other English-speaking Caribbean islands – except for this: that whoever remained here would never forget that they once had it all, and threw it away in a fit of pique. They would be inconsolable for a long, long, time.

Friday, December 21, 2012

Fiscal Cliff

The world’s governments are not coping at all well with their financial crises. Big and small, they are displaying the same incompetence that got them into the mess in the first place. They all borrowed more money than their taxpayers could ever repay – more, even, than their taxpayers’ children and grandchildren could repay.

With no spare money in the kitty, they must renew each loan as it falls due, at whatever interest-rate the creditors ask, or pay it back. Even to pay interest on the loans they must squeeze more money out of their constituents – and reduce the amount spent on government services. The term “fiscal cliff” describes the effect of that combination – each economy lurches from a plateau of prosperity to a chasm of recession: higher government expenditure, less loan-money coming in, and less revenue.

A thousand books have been written on how the world got into this situation: very few on how to get out of it. Bankers without conscience persuaded politicians without morals to borrow money for vanity projects and vote-buying projects, and/or to invest it in new types of securities (“derivatives”) endorsed by crooked rating agencies.

NINJA loans became famous. (N I N J A stood for mortgages granted to borrowers with No Income No Jobs or Assets.) Thousands of rubbish mortgages were diced and sliced and the pieces glued together in the same process by which bits of hooves and skin from slaughterhouse floors become sausages. The rubbish was advertised as Triple-A securities, the same rating as Swiss Government bonds. That’s how bankers became “banksters” – gangster-bankers.

The securities proved worthless. The loans that paid for them could have been defaulted on, but the banksters threatened to cut off all future loans to the borrowing governments, and politicians without morals will never agree to that. So the governments signed contracts to repay the existing loans as they fell due, and ended up in the same place.

Nations that fall off today’s fiscal cliffs will take generations to recover. Infrastructures will decay – Google “Detroit decay” for photos. Private companies will go broke: check the unemployment lines in Greece and Spain. Government services will shrink, except for the military (!). Pension Funds (private and public alike) will fail to cover retirees’ needs. Government employees will join their private-sector fellows on the dole, after it has been reduced to the bare minimum – or below.

How will nations ever climb out of the fiscal chasm, back up the fiscal cliff? There is a way; of course there’s a way. There is always a way. In this case, the way is inflation – maybe even hyper-inflation. But that’s a story for another day. Hyper-inflation is a very drastic solution – like cutting off a person’s gangrenous legs in order to save his life. Check out the Wikipedia entry for hyper-inflation.

Currency notes become worth less and less until they become literally worth-less. At some point some Central Bank invents a replacement currency – a hundred old dollars for one new dollar, say. In 1922 the German government of the day thought about doing this, but wasn’t quite brave enough. Two years later, when German workers were carrying their wages home in wheelbarrows full of near-worthless notes, the government finally authorised the Central Bank to make the switch – and by that time the rate of exchange was set at a trillion old marks for one new mark.

When I was a boy, I once had a German postage-stamp with a face value of fifty billion marks. It was worth a penny in the catalogue. It’s worth twenty-five cents today, with inflation.

Friday, December 14, 2012

Cayman’s uncertain future

This week our Premier was arrested, and his home and office were searched by the Police Commercial Crimes unit. For the next two months he will be “helping the Police with their enquiries”, as the saying goes. He has not yet been charged with anything, and is refusing to step down. Further, he has declared the British governor and the UK Government his enemies – and therefore Cayman’s enemies.

The anti-British stance is probably just a ploy to garner political support. There is some pro-independence sentiment among the native-born Caymanians, but most of them are fully aware that without Britain their prosperity would vanish. Our Offshore tax-haven – as structured – depends on Britain’s reputation for integrity. Without it these Islands would quickly revert to being “the lawless Caymanas”, as they were called in the bad old days of piracy and freebooting.

Britain is playing its cards close to its chest, for the moment. The most likely next step is to suspend our Constitution (a Mickey Mouse document cobbled together by the local illiterati a few years ago) and to impose direct rule from London, with our Governor administering day-to-day affairs, assisted by a team of helpers flown in from London. That’s what happened to Turks & Caicos in similar circumstances.

The arrest has been a long time coming. After all, it’s been at least a year since the Police announced that McKeeva was under investigation. Our Police and our Prosecution Service are both noted for their incompetence, so it’s quite possible that there will be no proper follow-through. We can only hope that the FCO really is determined to introduce good governance, at last. Good luck to them.

Unfortunately, the FCO itself has little credibility in an anti-corruption context. For the past forty years it has turned the blindest of eyes to endemic crony-corruption. It has allowed The Immigration Monster to flourish as the exploiter-in-chief of indentured migrant workers, especially the lower-paid of them.

In a crony-corruption regime, actual cash-corruption is not all that common. When government contracts at all levels are awarded to friends or family, there is no need for plain brown envelopes to change hands. Mutual back-scratching is what works best.

When government is an ever-expanding empire, the scope for corruption is also ever-expanding. When two-thirds of the workforce are foreigners, and all their Work Permits are issued as directed by political cronies, it is financially risky not to be a crony. That’s our situation here. Crony-government has been an integral part of the Caymanian community since slavery days, so there’s nothing new about it.

The only thing new about the economic environment in which it exists, is the quantity of revenue that flows into the Public Purse each year. In just 45 years or so, a little cowboy tuppenny-ha’penny money-laundry has grown into a hugely successful international financial centre that benefits from the taxes paid by hedge funds and other Offshore investment vehicles. I was working in Bahamas in the late 1960s when my employers were busy in establishing Cayman as a viable alternative to Nassau. I spent a weekend here in 1968. And I remember what an empty shell it was then. Not any more!

What prompts the FCO’s intervention now is the ineptness of our local community leaders’ money-management skills. You’d think that the legislators of one of the world’s most sophisticated financial centres would know how to balance their books – but no. They over-borrowed and over-spent like there was no tomorrow, with scarcely a nod of recognition for the principle of double-entry bookkeeping.

Well, tomorrow has arrived. Britain, the guarantor of all our Public Debt, is asking where all the Revenue went, and is demanding audited Statements of Account. They don’t even know how bad it is, yet.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

McKeeva arrested

Breaking news this morning is that McKeeva (Cayman's controversial Premier) was arrested at his home at 7 a.m. and is in Police custody. He has not been formally charged, but the arrest relates to accusations of corruption.

At this early stage it’s difficult to predict what effect the arrest will have on Cayman’s Offshore tax-haven sector, on which our prosperity rests. The most likely next step is the suspension of our Constitution and the imposition of direct rule by decree from London via the Governor lasting two or three years. That’s what happened to Turks & Caicos under similar circumstances.

This post is purely an interim report. A proper commentary will follow. The full story is on the CNS website . It will be running hot for the next few days, I expect.

UPDATE 4th January: This interim report was followed by the posts titled Cayman's Uncertain Future and Trouble in Paradise. McKeeva has still not been formally charged, and any criminal trial may be years away. Our political representation will remain uncertain until the general elections scheduled for May, and it is anybody's guess what kind of government we will have after that. The Legislative Assembly will have three extra MLAs - making a total of 18 MLAs for an electorate of 18,000. Each of them draws a salary of over US$100,000 - an egregious extravagance for an Island government hasn't balanced its books for the past umpteen years.

Except for the several tribal loyalties, there is no confidence among the general public - and especially among the tax-haven expats - that the situation will be significantly better after the election. McKeeva is a very clever politician, and few of us would bet the farm against his regaining power sooner or later.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

How to buy gold

Most financial pundits recommend that every investment portfolio contain some gold, especially retirement portfolios. I’ve written two blog-posts on the subject. Gold and other currencies, in March this year, gave a brief layman’s report on gold’s role as a yardstick, by which the sustainability of paper currencies can be measured. I imagined a new-born baby being given a $35 gift certificate in 1971 and his twin given a one-ounce gold coin (then worth $35), and I asked which of them would be the more pleased today.

Gold, silver & war, posted in October, gave a brief layman’s report on gold as a store of value and its relationship to paper currencies. All aggressive wars are, and have always been, fought for loot. Wars used to be financed by gold, and repaid in loot that was valued in gold. Today, wars are financed by paper money and repaid in loot (oil, etc) sold for paper money.

What the pundits don’t tell us is what form of gold should be in the retirement portfolios, and where it should be stored. Here is a brief layman’s summary.

1. Gold in the ground – shares in mining companies whose prices are quoted on some major stock exchange. Custody: the share certificates are most conveniently held by the bank or broker that carries out an investor’s instruction to buy; the gold itself stays with the mining company, naturally enough! Risk: the company’s managers might not be good at their jobs, or be honest; nor might their auditors.

(Mining companies customarily sell gold-in-the-ground for the current price, and promise delivery some months ahead – when the price may be much different. That practice partly explains the disconnect between the price-charts of the companies’ shares and of bullion.)

2. Gold in an Exchange Traded Fund (ETF) – units in mutual funds that are traded like shares. Custody: the certificates stay with the bank or broker as per #1 above, and the physical gold stays in the ETF’s vault. There are also ETFs that buy and hold shares in mining companies, and hold those certificates as per #1. Risk: gold-bullion ETFs might not physically possess all the gold they claim to own; some of it might have been lent out to professional speculators who won’t pay it back.

3. Gold in jewellery – self-explanatory. Custody: at home or in an outside safety deposit box. Risk: all that glitters is not 24-carat gold.

4. Gold bars of varying sizes and weights – bought through banks or brokers. Custody: usually at a bank or bullion-storage facility. Either specified numbered bars are identified as belonging to specific owners or a custodian holds an entire inventory of bullion for multiple owners and issues a formal certificate of ownership for each client for the weight held in his name. Risk: all banks and brokers aren’t 24-carat ones.

(Alternatively, one can take personal delivery of bars or coins and bury them in the back yard. The risk is the same as in #3 above. Gold-plated bars of other metals would fool most of us; even experts can’t always tell them apart without actually cutting them open.)

5. Gold coins – as #4 – bought through banks or brokers. Custody: as #3 & #4. Risk: Coins sell above the bullion price, at premiums that vary. Also, coins can be counterfeited, too.

6. Gold “futures” – contracts with other gold-owners to buy very large amounts of bullion, with a good-faith deposit that is only a small percentage of the value of the contract. In effect, it is a bet on the price of gold – a gamble, and not an investment suitable for retirement portfolios.

Most financial pundits suspect that Fort Knox has lent some or all of its gold to speculators who won’t ever pay it back. Yes, even Fort Knox! Who can one trust, these days? There is more risk in custody than in price, in these wicked days.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

The Man from Snowy River (Aussie bush life)

In my Town and Country blog-post of 18th December 2011, I noted some of the cultural differences between townies and country folk, from my own experience. The post was prompted by an English newspaper report of a speed-castration contest (of lambs, of course; what else would it be?). Two of the contestants had become sick, and I marvelled that my father had never gotten sick whenever he pulled lambs’ balls off with his teeth.

To put food on the table, Dad killed a sheep every ten days, and we ate mutton three meals a day every day. I remember the violence of the killing – SAS-style, I guess: head jerked up from behind to expose the throat to the knife and allow the blood to gush out. The body was hung upside-down on a hook to let the rest of the blood leak out. In town, we bought from a butcher. Nowadays, meat is pre-packaged by supermarkets. (And sometimes it probably isn’t meat at all!)

In towns, dogs are either house-pets or yard-dogs; pets have no duties except to love their human gods, yard-dogs have to keep the neighbours awake all day and as much of the night as they can manage. Country dogs’ terms of employment require them to be slave-drivers – the slaves being the sheep and cattle belonging to the boss. The same distinction applies to horses. In towns, they’re pets. In the country, they’re house-slaves, duty-bound to accompany their masters whenever called upon.

Only once in my life was I allowed to ride my Dad’s horse. She was a huge beast, who accepted only one master. She shuddered with shame when I hit the saddle, aged nine and small for my age. Dad held her head and gently explained the circumstances to her. The dog and I were deputised to escort a few hundred sheep to the railway siding a few miles away, to be shipped off to the butcher.

The dog could have done it by itself, and pretty much did. My control of dogs was severely handicapped by my inability to whistle. What an embarrassment for a country boy! On this occasion I shouted instructions, which the dog cheerfully ignored as it went about its familiar business. I just sat and prayed that Big Bess would forget I was up there; and maybe she did forget, at that. 

If I’d been on my own horse I’d have cantered up and down the mob pretending to know what I was doing, which would have mucked up the dog’s agenda. I’d have been no less use if I’d galloped up and down the road behind us. 

Actually, one never did gallop much, strange to say, because in our part of Australia the land was pock-marked with depressions large and deep enough to be dangerous to galloping horses. Even dingo-hunts (adults only) were done at nothing more than a fastish canter.

Occasionally, after school, some of us would pretend we were The Man From Snowy River and charge headlong through copses with fallen trees underfoot. That was fun, until Bryan broke his arm trying to squeeze between two trees that were too close together. The Man From Snowy River was the hero of our favourite action poem, a role-model for Australia’s bush horsemen. 

Through the stringy barks and saplings, on the rough and broken ground,
Down the hillside at a racing pace he went;
And he never drew the bridle till he landed safe and sound
At the bottom of that terrible descent.

It’s an exciting description, and impossible to recite properly without bending your body to the rhythm of the ride. My Dad knew all the words, but would never recite it in public. It was an unrealistic description, anyway. Galloping downhill over fallen trees would be suicide for both man and horse, on a loose rein.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Aiding and abetting adultery in the South Pacific

The New Hebrides (now the independent nation of Vanuatu) was an Anglo-French condominium in the Pacific Ocean – and a Franco-Britannique one called Nouvelles Hebrides, to the French. It had a bizarre constitutional set-up – the result of a strange episode in its history as a European protectorate.

By the late 1800s, most of the islands in the Pacific had fallen under the control of the European empires of the day, plus the USA. The native peoples of Polynesia, Melanesia and Micronesia had no weapons to match those of the Western powers, who simply divvied up the territories among themselves.

France claimed New Caledonia, Britain claimed Fiji. Germany wanted the New Hebrides, but neither Britain nor France wanted a German presence in the region; they also didn’t want the Islands themselves. The logical thing to do would have been to split the entire archipelago down the middle; but logic has never featured strongly in Anglo-French intercourse over the centuries. What they did was agree to run the Islands jointly, as a “condominium”. It was referred to, by one and all, as a pandemonium.

The clerks at the imperial headquarters of the British and French expatriates composed two legal Codes, one for each set in its own language. Expats of other nationalities were obliged to choose which Code they would be bound by. Additionally, there was a Condominium Code, applicable to all residents – British, French, all other foreigners, and all natives.

A fourth collection of rules comprised a Native Code that applied to all natives and all native-white affairs. This was published (as was the Condominium code) in both English and French, by a printer in Montreal. The translations did not always correspond exactly, but that’s life. C’est la vie, in fact.

Finally, there was a fifth set of laws that the natives had to cope with, and that was their own “Custom Law”, analogous to England’s Common Law. It was unwritten, and little known among expats. It didn’t vary much from village to village – although, with seventy Melanesian and four Polynesian languages spoken in the archipelago (none of them written), there existed some scope for disagreement.

When I had nothing better to do at the office, I waded my way through the Islands’ constitutional laws, Custom Law excluded. I was intrigued by one odd law in the Native Code that prescribed six months in prison for the crime of “aiding and abetting adultery”. The mind boggled. Surely there wasn’t a travelling cheer-squad that attended each adulterous mating, that the European powers were trying to abolish, like suttee in India? One expat old-timer explained it to me, amused by my indignation.

Marriage was taken very seriously by the Melanesians, newly converted to Presbyterian Christianity. Unfortunately, boys will be boys, and the more attractive of the young bachelors did not always resist the temptation to seduce married women, when the opportunity arose.

An unfaithful wife would be beaten by her husband; Custom Law allowed that. Her partner in infidelity might be killed by the husband; Custom Law allowed that, too. But the Native Code forbade murder, and it took precedence over Custom Law. How could the murders be stopped?

The chiefs came in a delegation to the European administrators. If the white rulers really wanted to be helpful and stop the killings, would they please amend their Native Code and outlaw adultery? Perhaps it could carry a penalty of six months in pokey, to allow tempers to cool. Well, the administrators would be delighted! However... By legal definition, the lawyers said, “adultery” could only be committed by a married person. Outlawing adultery would catch an erring wife, but not her unmarried paramour.

“Aiding and abetting adultery” was not the most elegant of terms, but it served the purpose.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Cayman’s political impasse – and its solution

There is a strong desire here to vote out all the present MLAs (Members of the Legislative Assembly) at the next general election. It won’t happen, of course, but it makes for some interesting speculations.

The people we have now comprise two political factions of our sole political force: namely, the unofficial Protectionist Party. The UDP and the PPM are not distinguished by anything that can be called a policy. They differ only in the personalities of their leaders. The only political promises our candidates make are 1) “We will do the same things as our opponents, only better!” and 2) “We will stick it to the expats harder than our opponents would!”

Both factions are fiscally incompetent. Both are in thrall to Cayman’s special-interest lobbies – the beneficiaries of our protectionist and indentured-labour system, and the beneficiaries of our ever-expanding central government.

There are regular calls for independent candidates, not members of the usual gangs of egotists. Those of us with Cayman’s best long-term interests at heart are desperate to persuade businessmen of proven ability and trustworthiness to do their civic duty.

Unfortunately, “trustworthiness” at election time means “can be trusted to protect all native-born Caymanians against better-qualified and better-motivated foreigners, in commerce and the workplace”. The protectionist system that has kept wages low for the unskilled and uneducated, and productivity low for everybody, must continue. That is not up for negotiation with people who would vote as a bloc to protect their permanent affirmative-action program.

“Proven ability”, in prospective candidates for public office, means “proven ability to succeed within the protectionist program”. Sigh. What can you do?

The problem is this. The prospects best qualified to run our Islands’ government include expatriates. Yet the thought of having expats in the Legislature and on Statutory Boards is abhorrent to the bulk of the electorate. It’s not expats’ birthplaces that handicap them: it’s their ancestry.

Individuals born in Cayman of non-Caymanian parents are and always will be regarded as expats; persons born overseas with even one native-Caymanian parent are and always will be regarded as Caymanian. “Real” Caymanians inherit their qualifications, which out-rank all other qualifications. It’s like the Church’s doctrine of apostolic succession.

MLAs must be “of the blood”. In theory, there are plenty of independently minded bloodline-Caymanians who could unseat the present MLAs; but in practice, no there aren’t. Most of the independents have served on government committees or boards whose members are appointed by MLAs. They are thereby tarred with the brush of association with one or other of the present Parties. Government by cronies is our tradition, after all. Very, very few individuals escape such service with their reputations intact.

So here’s the thing. If we rule out all expats as inherently untrustworthy, and all bloodline-Caymanians as compromised, who is left? Nobody. Only the British FCO can help us out of this mess, though I doubt if it will make the effort.

Two years of direct rule from London would allow our system of parliamentary representation to be re-set. During those two years, some responsible and carefully selected long-term immigrants could be encouraged to become public figures by serving on important public committees – appointed by the governor, not by local politicians. Some responsible and carefully selected “non-politicals” among our bloodline Caymanians could be similarly appointed. For them, two years ought to be enough for their past associations to be forgotten, or at least forgiven.

That solution would give us hope. Nothing else will, I fear.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Cayman’s friendly expats

The headline in last Friday’s newspaper read Cayman friendliest country in the world. Beneath it, the usual braggadocio and false comparison with countries like China, USA and India that have thousands of times the population and area of our tiny Island. I scoffed at this practice in a post called Apples & Oranges in January 2011, and my comments are still valid.

The report was based on a survey by the HSBC bank of 5300 expats (not visitors) in 100 countries – including dependent territories, apparently. Cayman is “the easiest nation in the world [for expats] to make friends and integrate into the community and its culture”, the survey concluded: and that’s probably correct. Considering that two thirds of the community are expats, making friends and integrating is indeed easy. Most migrants rarely get to interact with the native-born, except individuals.

Several posts on this blog (e.g. House of Cards in September 2011) have reported on the societal schism that exists here, fostered by politicians and our Immigration bureaucracy. Many of the ethnic, native-born, Caymanians resent being outnumbered in their own tiny territory, and resent being indebted to the expat flood for all the recent comforts of life such as air-conditioning and good food.

To appease the natives, the British Foreign & Commonwealth Office (FCO) in London allows them a monopoly of political power with the authority to control the foreign workforce and to exploit the lower-paid unskilled migrants.

If we ever cease to be a British colony, the mutual resentment will catch fire, and end our status as an international financial centre – which will end the prosperity that attracts so many expats. We are in the middle of a minor crisis at the moment, with our governing political party positioning itself to demand independence from Britain – the independence that would destroy us. (See A day late and a dollar short, September 2012.) We could be in deep trouble a few weeks or months from now.

Nevertheless, the HSBC survey’s finding may well be accurate: this is a very friendly place for expats. I would have answered favourably, too, if the Bank had surveyed me. Since most of the population are expats, it is expats who display the friendliness that was reported, and the ease of integration. Socially, the usual national divisions apply, though loosely, and the usual occupational divisions too. There are no racial divisions, as such, or religious ones either, except on Sundays.

We have Jamaicans and other West Indians, Filipinos and Indians from their respective different islands and regions, Latinos from all over Latin America, British and other Europeans, and North Americans galore. Most of the Europeans, Canadians and Americans are middle-class and overpaid, most of the others working-class and underpaid. To a man and woman, they are delighted to be here, and it shows in their cheerfulness and general attitude.

For further information, let me recommend a website called Expat Focus and the first report from Cayman that I wrote in it, called Cayman’s Expats – 57 Varieties and Counting. To find it, the easiest way is to Google “expat focus 57 varieties”. I’ve just done it, and it works!

Last month we had friends staying with us. (Cayman for Visitors, October 2012). Except for Captain Marvin’s sons on the Stingray City tour, they rarely encountered any true-born Caymanians. As for the nationalities, colours, races and accents of the people they did meet during the visit, it’s all a blur to me. Living here, describing an individual by colour or voice often becomes a serious test of memory. Cayman’s expats don’t all look alike, of course; but it does seem that way sometimes.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Gold, silver, and war

In The Good Olde Days, not all that long ago, currency notes could be exchanged for gold or silver at most banks in the Western world. Indeed, in many countries (perhaps all; I don’t know) currency notes began as simple chits issued by warehouses. People got tired of carrying around lumps of metal. Why not park them in specialist warehouses owned by goldsmiths and silversmiths, get their receipts, and carry those around to pay for goods and services? As long as the warehouse-owners were trusted, and their receipts weren’t forged, there would be no problem. Reputation was everything.

A single receipt for a pound of gold or silver might not be easily negotiable, but if you asked the man nicely he would give you twelve receipts each exchangeable for a troy ounce. (12 ounces to the pound. A troy ounce is 480 grains, and a grain is 64.79891 milligrams. Wikipedia is not always reliable on certain international political matters, but I don’t think it would lie to us about weights and measures.)

Why gold and silver? Because there was a limited supply of each metal, and that supply was tightly controlled by tribal or national rulers, who also controlled the manufacture of official monetary coins. A system of coinage wouldn’t have worked with stones (for instance) because anybody could pick up stones along the road, and how would the local rulers control their supply? Central control was essential, if casual panners and miners were to be kept in their place at the bottom of the social ladder.

From earliest times, rulers of clans, tribes and nations insisted on licensing the warehouses, and usually claimed first dibs on the right to borrow or steal the inventory of stored metals. The borrowed gold and silver was used to buy weapons of war, and was repaid out of the loot from conquered towns and cities. From the Roman and Norman conquests of England to the Mongolian and British conquests of India, loot was the main objective. The gold-warehouses did well out of successful wars, and often went broke after unsuccessful ones when there was no loot to replace the borrowed inventories.

Having a vested interest in their borrowers’ success, warehouse-owners tried mightily to see that wars ended in the way that was most profitable for them. As bankers, they still do. Wars are still a major source of profits, both directly (lending to governments to buy weapons and soldiers) and indirectly (lending to armies and weapons-makers). There are huge profits to be made out of invading and occupying foreign producers of oil and minerals, notably in Africa and the Middle East.

Today’s national rulers insist on central control. It can be argued that the bankers today control the rulers; but it is more accurate to say that the bankers are the rulers. They own the legislators.

If you think about it, there is no other reason to wage war, than to obtain loot. The exact form of the loot changes according to circumstances, but in essence it is always something that can produce greater wealth for the looters. Occasionally it is land, but usually it’s something portable.

Invasions and occupations are sometimes reported as being for access to water or harbours or strategic mountains, but those are incidental objectives. Histories tell of wars between religions or cultures, but there has always been a material objective in mind. Today the bullshit is about “the clash of cultures” – Western Christians and Jews versus Eastern Moslems – with the Chinese being held in reserve for the next manufactured clash of cultures.

Today the Western invaders’ purpose is oil and minerals. Easterners haven’t done any invading, lately, but if they ever get around to it, their objectives will be the same – maybe even the exact same oil etc that is being stolen from them now! There will be nothing new under the sun.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Confessions of a subversive

Surfing online blogs and forums is a fascinating waste of time. It probably doesn’t amount to an addiction, but it’s close. I am signed on to five expat-forums, and there are five expat bloggers that I check out every few days. The bloggers all write entertainingly and fluently from their current homes in France, Chile, Thailand, Santo Domingo and Indonesia. My blog is not as popular as theirs, but it does have some followers.

Because blogs are essentially ego-trips, we bloggers all envy those among us who manage to attract thousands of hits each week. How satisfying that must be! My blog gets around one thousand a month – pretty small beer. I don’t advertise my blog locally, because attracting too many local fans might land me in more trouble than I could handle. For the past 26 years my writings have brought the wrath of the political and bureaucratic establishments down on my head, and I don’t want to have to fight deportation again.

I first found myself “off-message” when I was hired to set up a permanent Chamber of Commerce office in 1986. Despite being a British colony, Cayman openly censors commentaries, especially by expats. There is a whole department of government devoted to suppressing freedom of speech. A major purpose of our Immigration Department is to exercise censorship through the issuance or non-issuance of Work Permits.

The local politicians reluctantly allowed the Chamber of Commerce job to go to an expat; they had to be persuaded that they had nothing to fear. Unfortunately, that wasn't true. Supported for the first time by a back office, my Directors publicly opposed two major proposed Laws. Those Laws provided for state control of the entire private-sector workforce and of all pension-moneys. Oops! Shocked by this unprecedented opposition in a hitherto docile electorate, the political directorship slandered the Chamber as “a seditious organisation” and its Manager as a “subversive”.

When we actually won the hearts and minds of the voters on the pensions issue (we called it an Income Tax), my Work Permit was pulled and my young son scheduled for deportation. Linda and I scrambled to salvage what we could. This was our home, and no bunch of quasi-Marxist politicians was going to throw us out. For the next two years I was stamped in each month as a visitor by the Chief Immigration Officer, a Civil Servant who reported to the British Governor and not to the local establishment.

In self-defence I began writing political commentaries in the lesser local newspapers, and became so high-profile as to be almost impossible to deport. Both parties fought to a standstill, and retired exhausted. A bold dissident to most expats of the day (though not all), a hateful villain to many Caymanians, I finally won the right to stay; but there was a whole mess of blood on the floor when the fight was over – and much of it was mine.

Over time, the lesser newspapers folded, and a generous fan set up my blog as a vehicle for my critiques of society’s shortcomings. Blogs cost nothing to operate, so they need no revenue, and no advertisers who might be vulnerable to threats from the authorities.

Bloggers can write what they feel like writing; it’s a wonderful freedom. My blog covers religion, historical speculation, politics, crime, finance, human rights, violence against women, and barking dogs – as well as carrying reminiscences about back-packing through the Middle East in the 1960s with a girl I met at a Youth Hostel and later married.

This month I reported on playing cricket in Vanuatu and Corfu, for goodness sake. Fun to write, but not the sort of topic to attract a huge worldwide base of avid readers. Sigh. I probably need to work on a new business model.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

When the clock struck four (cricket in Corfu)

Most Scots are cheerful folk, but the race does produce some individuals who are dour, humourless and just plain cranky. Ian was one of these. All the same, we were momentarily sorry when Fred hit him with a cricket ball. Fred was our team’s fast-bowler and Ian was half an hour late on an attempted leg-glance.

(American readers, please just accept the technicalities without question. They’d take too long to explain. Be thankful I didn’t describe the attempt as a shot off his legs. His legs were never in any danger of being shot off. It’s just – oh, never mind.)

The ball hit him on the back of his thigh, behind the pad. He went down in a heap – in obvious pain and cursing fit to bust. We fielders cut short our appeal for LBW and gathered round the fallen warrior. The umpire wandered down from the bowler’s end. “Are you all right, Ian?” Poor Ian. “Of course I’m not all right, you bloody fool! It hurts like hell and I can’t stand up.” The umpire sighed in sympathy. “Well, I’ve got some more bad news for you. You’re out.” Poor Ian – the only man on the field who didn’t see the funny side of that.

The standard of cricket in Vila in the New Hebrides (now Port Vila, in Vanuatu) was low enough to allow me to participate without embarrassment – and Ian too, most days. It was the first time I’d played since high school 16 years before, and the setting was too beautiful to resist. The field was a specially cleared space in The British Paddock, overlooking the little harbour with Iririki Island in the middle distance.

(At this time – the early 1970s – the New Hebs were jointly administered by Britain and France as what was formally called a Condominium. Informally, it was called a pandemonium, which fairly describes the chaos that usually results when the French and the British join forces in any venture. I’ll write about that some other time; this post is supposed to be about cricket.)

A year or so after leaving Vila, we and our new baby were living out of a Kombi van and an old tent in a camping ground on Corfu, where I turned out a few times for The British Casuals. That was a scratch team of whatever foreigners happened to be on the Island. The standard was as low as it was in Vila, so I felt no shame.

The British had introduced cricket during their governance of the Island in the fifty years following the Battle of Waterloo. There was a Greek National Team in my day, whose members were spread among three or four local teams, which played with us on equal terms. All one can decently say about their abilities was that they were better cricketers than umpires.

They weren’t always sure of the rules, which situation generally worked for them. They scrupulously kept the rule about stopping for tea when the clock struck four, but were less fussy about others. On the other hand, they had only a tenuous grasp of tactics, which usually worked against them.

The field was in the middle of the Corfu Town Square, surrounded by seedy hotels and restaurants. Recent photos on show that matches are still played there, although there is also a far nicer place elsewhere on the Island. The Greek National Team is now drawn from eleven clubs and plays in a formal ICC league, ranked very low down alongside places like Pitcairn and Lithuania.

At least, they did before the current economic crisis. If the poor fellows can’t afford to import bats and balls any more they may revert to the standards of old. I wonder if they still have my name and address in the archives...

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Cayman for visitors

 Jay and Kay (real names changed to protect the innocent) have put Linda up twice over the years, in Australia, so we owed them. They were here this week for a few days, and we showed them around. They’re our age, so there were no booze sessions at beach parties or nightclubs. The pace was leisurely; we concentrated on four of our Island’s best attractions for oldies: Rum Point, “Stingray City”, the Turtle Farm and Camana Bay.

Grand Cayman is a very comfortable place to live (the comfort being largely based on thousands of low-paid indentured migrants), but it doesn’t have anything in the way of beautiful scenery. Driving around is pleasant, and the contrast of rich and poor is interesting, but it’s not a pretty island.

We drove our friends to the other end of the Island and back, stopping at Rum Point for some shallow snorkelling, and an outdoor lunch after all the cruise-ship passengers had left. The latter are bussed up to a jetty on North Sound and boated across to feed the stingrays before lunching at Rum Point. Drinks and fish-&-chips for the four of us cost US$100, which is pretty good value for here. No charge for using the beach chairs, and we brought our own snorkel gear.

Next day, Captain Marvin’s crew took us out to the stingrays’ feeding place by the reef at the entrance to North Sound. The rays bump and nudge humans for food, which caused Jay and Kay to have nervous flashbacks of Steve Irwin’s death in 2006; a frightened ray stabbed him in the heart with its stinger. (Irwin was an eccentric Australian who played dangerous games with crocodiles, snakes and stingrays in the wild, until he ran out of luck.)

The Turtle Farm is good value these days for US$15 each. Swimming with turtles isn’t my cup of tea, but most people like to cuddle them, as much as turtles can be cuddled. We used to keep a couple of terrapins when our son was young. They scrabbled for attention whenever they heard my footsteps on the stairs, and liked being stroked. We thought they loved us, but when Linda let them out for a walk one day they ran off and never came back. Well, “ran off”... Disappeared, anyway.

The Turtle Farm is state-owned, and (therefore) loses between $500,000 and a million dollars every month. Those bumper-stickers that read CRIME WOULDN’T PAY, IF THE GOVERNMENT RAN IT -- very appropriate. Cayman has more than its fair share of loss-making government enterprises. Pedro’s Castle is another. It’s a tarted-up Civil Service committee’s version of a plantation “great house” that requires two girls (one cheerful, the other not) to sell ice-creams and tickets to chance callers-by. We welcomed the ice-creams, but didn’t reckon it was worth ten bucks apiece to see a fake castle up close.

Camana Bay is a visionary new town being built on a fifty-year timeline by Ken Dart, whose company manufactures most of those Styrofoam-type containers that fast-food comes in. The town (“Dartsville”, informally) is a peaceful and gentle place to wander round, and very popular with residents. No expense has been spared, or discounted rents for several (many?) of the shops and restaurants. There’s no way some of them can be earning a profit from such scant custom.

We got up ridiculously early this morning to see Jay and Kay off. We may never see them again, but we gave them some good memories of our island. You do what you can, don’t you?

Thursday, October 4, 2012

The war against women

Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) drives hundreds of soldiers and veterans of today’s Western armies (mainly Americans) to kill themselves, and sometimes their families too. Usually, the suicides come after months of depression and despair; nightmares, fragile nerves and paranoia are common symptoms. Families and old friends watch the victims sink under the burden of bad memories of the atrocities they have seen and done during their overseas deployments.

It may seem a perverse judgment on first reading, but in some degree those suicides represent the hope of mankind. They are our proof that some soldiers retain enough humanity to feel shame and guilt at the things they have been ordered to do, and have done. Of course not all who share those experiences and memories feel driven to suicide. Most suffer in silence, and pretend they don’t suffer. Some aren’t affected at all, because they lack the mental capacity for compassion. They are sociopaths, pretty much by definition, and we should be very afraid of them.

They will be our children’s and grandchildren’s guardians and torturers. They will be the enforcers of any and all oppressive domestic decrees and laws, and will bring to that job the same cold brutality they practised during their military service. They will obey orders without question. They are monsters.

There was a news item recently about a US drone strike on fifteen women and babies in Pakistan on the way to the river to do the family laundry. Now there are strict rules for the ordering of drone strikes; there is nothing casual about them. The targets are carefully identified and certified, and their assassinations justified and specified. Only then are their executions passed into the steady hands of the drone-pilots in military bases inside the USA. There is nothing casual about the exercise.

The slaughter of the women and babies was deliberate, as all such slaughters are. That’s what terrorism is, in occupied territories – taking out innocents in the hope of persuading fathers and spouses to stop resisting the occupation. That’s America’s and NATO’s “war of terror”. It’s the Mafia model, and it works well.

How do those actions rank in the general context of violence against women and children? Is it worse than domestic wife-bashing and child-cruelty, or better, or about the same? My own personal opinion is that it’s worse, but I may be wrong. I am a human-rights advocate, and my loyalty is to the human race, above any particular ingredient of it. I am not a Christian, but I honour the sentiment ascribed to Christ in the King James Version: inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.

I interpret brethren to include sistren (sisters), and I regard the sentiment as applicable beyond whatever tribal or national context they may have held. Not everybody does, which is why “human rights” have failed to be accepted as anything more than leftist whimsy.

No women’s organisation or children’s protection society in the West ever publicly deplores drone-strikes against foreign women and children. Simple tribal solidarity beats gender solidarity hands down.

Why else aren’t Western women's organisations interested in the basic rights of women and children in non-Western countries? Why do they grumble about the enforced wearing of burkas and the like, but stay silent on rapes and murders by Western soldiers? What kind of priority is that?

By their silence, Western women (judging by their representatives) give support to their tribal soldiers’ perception that females and children of different tribes and cultures aren’t worth spit. God help us. As a culture, ours is not nearly as advanced as we like to think it is. We have a long way to evolve, yet.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Looking for boltholes – Part Two

The more we (Linda and I) think about an emergency bolthole to escape a worldwide economic collapse, the more we wonder if we’re not already living in it. One’s home is always familiar territory, isn’t it? We know who to go to for goods and services of every kind, where to shop, what areas to stay out of for personal safety, who to allow in our house and who not. And, how to minimise taxes.

It’s fairly easy for a new resident in any country to learn all those things from other expats who have arrived before, but even so... Often the advice one receives is conflicting. Even married couples don’t always like the same dentist or car mechanic. People tend to stay where they feel most comfortable, especially in old age.

 Some day, this Island may become too expensive for us, or too crime-ridden, or too noisy. Its medical and communications facilities may become sub-standard; so may its policing. Its underclass and its yard-dogs may become out of control. Its infrastructure may collapse; our household garbage-collection service may be cut back to once a week. The local authorities may become too hostile to foreigners.

I’ve written before about the resentment that many native-born Caymanians feel for more-recent immigrants; that’s not diminishing, as years go by. I am one of a handful of immigrants stubborn and defiant enough to sign their names to published criticism of our government’s policies and practices. That’s five (a handful is five, right?) out of 30,000, in a population of 50,000. Cayman is a tribal democracy, not a real one. Outsiders’ concerns are rarely taken into account. Much the same as in any bolthole, of course.

For boltholes, we have our eyes on Lake Atitlan in Guatemala, Lakes Chapala and Avandaro in Mexico, and maybe the vicinity of Vilcabamba in Ecuador if it hasn’t changed too much in the past few years. Friends recommend parts of Costa Rica and Panama, but we don’t know them at first hand.

Why would we consider anywhere in Latin America, when we don’t speak Spanish? Well, we can speak a sort of pidgin Spanish, which is adequate for day-to-day dealings. We rely heavily on goodwill, which we’ve usually found more effective than language. Hey, we have Norwegian grandchildren, and we don’t speak their language. Spanish is a doddle, compared with Norwegian.

Naturally, Norway is also a prospective bolthole – though the cost of living might be a problem. The same goes for southern France. We loved the Greek islands in the old days, and we hear they haven’t changed all that much. Property is cheap there in these days of crisis; but we’re not tempted. Foreign-owned property would very likely be repossessed the minute Greece recovered its independence.

We got caught like that in Vanuatu years ago, when the post-independence government stole our suburban lot. We won’t be caught again. Anyway, we’re both over seventy. We’d be crazy to sink our savings into a house and land, when we could rent.

The ambient language of a prospective bolthole isn’t important enough to rule any place out of consideration. All the same, it would certainly be more convenient to choose one of the eastern Caribbean islands, or southern England, or Gibraltar, or New Zealand. All wonderful candidates. So is Cayman. Its status as a British colony gives us a certain degree of protection against lawlessness, in an increasingly lawless world.

We will keep all the other prospective boltholes in mind, and keep our fingers crossed. The words of an old Creedence Clearwater song spring to mind:  
Bother me tomorrow; today I’ll buy no sorrow. (Doo, doot, doo – lookin’ out my back door.)

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Julian Assange & the evil empire

Whatever else he is, the man is a master of propaganda. Every seller of goods or services in the world ought to be begging his advice on the subject. He may or may not have the skill to boost sales or revenue, but he sure as hell can destroy a competitor’s credibility.

A little while ago, a Chinese dissident found refuge in the US Embassy in Beijing. After a bit of argy-bargy, China agreed to let him catch a flight to America, and it all ended cordially. But when an Australian dissident found refuge in the Ecuador Embassy in London, the UK government went into a snit and refused to give him safe passage to the local airport to catch a flight to Ecuador.

Oh, my! China did the honourable thing, Britain (backed by Sweden and the US) the dishonourable. The British government, having allowed many “extraordinary renditions” of America’s Prisoners of War through Britain to torture camps in Europe, is now insisting on one more victim. Its treatment of Assange has shown up Britain’s cowardice when America cracks the whip. Pathetic.

By his resistance, Assange has shone the light of publicity on the moral corruption of three nations that I have admired and respected most of my life – Sweden, Britain and the USA. Now, with so many others, I find myself despising them as bullies. The young man is a hero – like the Chinese man who defied the tanks in Tiananmen Square, in the famous photograph.

The US is ruled by certifiable psychopaths, now, who have ripped their country’s reputation to shreds. It is today’s Evil Empire. Its money buys acolytes – the rulers of Britain and Sweden, for instance. The US’s desire to deliver Assange into the bloody hands of its eager torturers at Guantanamo is what drives the British and Swedish politicians to please their paymasters. The corruption stinks to high heaven.

How bizarre, that this one small man of no intrinsic importance has been promoted to the status of a Solzhenitsyn, a Dreyfus, a Stauffenberg, a Daniel Ellsberg, for daring to do the right thing. What a cracked-up sense of honour the three nations’ representatives are clinging to.

In truth, there is little surprise about the US government’s determination to punish Assange’s whistle-blowing. The bombings, invasions and occupations of Moslem communities have put the USA and its cronies beyond the pale of civilised society. The drone-strikes target civilians, on the off-chance of killing a stray resistance fighter. Murder by joystick, they call it, and Assange believes it should be reported. The kings of the killing fields have adopted the cynical words of Shakespeare’s MacBeth:

I am in blood stepped in so far that should I wade no more, 
Returning were as tedious as go o’er. 

Britain? Well, Britain has a long history of savagery in defence of its commercial interests. They have done very well out of the slaughters in Iraq and Libya and Pakistan, and expect to do well in Iran. Sweden’s miners and manufacturers too have a vested interest in the wars of the Empire. Those interests are infinitely more important than the old-fashioned virtues that the nation used to practise.

An online newspaper the other day referred to the Swedish rulers as “a Quisling government”, which is amusing, in a sick way. Mr Quisling was the appointed ruler of Norway during the German occupation in the 1940s. I don’t suppose many Swedes enjoy seeing their nation bracketed with a Nazi puppet.

Sigh. In 1961 Joseph Heller wrote Catch-22, a satirical anti-war book that ended with the main character plotting to flee to Sweden in a row-boat from his squadron’s base in Italy. The last scene in the movie shows him actually in the boat and rowing out to sea. Today, the objective might not be Sweden at all, but Ecuador.

Monday, September 17, 2012

Looking for bolt-holes – Part One

Once you’ve made your home somewhere, it’s hard to be truly objective about the changes you see happening. You’re aware of the physical changes, as time goes by – a new apartment block, a new marina or entertainment complex, new roads – but you tend to forget the order in which they came. At least, that’s what we’ve found, in the several places we’ve called “home” in our 45 years together.

We remember when we could leave all our keys in the car and find them there next morning. But we can’t name the exact year when criminals became so cheeky that absent-mindedness of that kind became costly. What year was it that we put burglar-bars on all our house-windows? We don’t remember. It all just crept up on us.

In this Caribbean island, most of the changes have been recent. Two generations ago there were only 12,000 residents, all of one ethnic identity. What money there was, had been wired home by men working on American merchant ships; local work-opportunities were limited to fishing and dirt-farming. Now, we have 50,000 people of dozens of different nationalities; our tourism and Offshore tax-haven bring in more money than our government can sensibly spend.

Today, things are about to change again – but this time it’s serious. We are faced with the prospect of a new world order, imposed by the criminal cabals in charge of Western countries today. They seem to be planning the world’s future with the help of two famous instructional books. One is 1984, the other is Brave New World. It would be prudent to familiarise ourselves with their outlines in Wikipedia.

Personal freedom in future might not always be an option for individuals within the reach of the cabals and their enforcers. Already we see some representative democracies developing into Police States, as economies collapse into high unemployment and super-high inflation. The rule of law is weakening, as the definition of “terrorism” is broadened to include ordinary dissidence. The Wikileaks persecutions (Assange and Manning) are clear evidence of that.

The changes in police uniforms over the past fifty years illustrate the point. The gentle English bobby and his counterparts have become stormtroopers; his policeman’s whistle has become a taser gun: his polite enquiry, a debilitating kick. Not in Cayman, I hasten to say, but sooner or later even the gentlest of Caribbean islands will be urged to follow suit. Guantanamo is only ninety miles across the water, from our Islands. That's handy.

What can we do? Where can we go, if push literally comes to shove? That’s the question of the moment.

Our grandchildren and their parents all live in Norway, a country that shares that wonderful Scandinavian reputation for freedom and safety. But Norway was a Police State in 1940-45, during the cruel German empire; and there is no guarantee it won’t become one again under the cruel American one. Norway is a member of NATO, after all, whose members all claim the right to abuse human rights where they find them. Libya and Syria are a long way from Oslo, but you can understand why we don’t regard Norway as the ideal refuge in a 1984 world.

There are some places in Latin America that seem attractive to us. The nations there are famous for the ease with which they revert to Police States at the drop of a hat. However, the US-government-sponsored death-squads in the latter half of the 20th Century didn’t regard resident expatriates as threats to national security, and actually killed very few peaceful foreign residents – if any. We might be safer there than in any of the NATO nations or their dependent territories.

It’s a topic worth taking a second look at.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Nothing to loose (sub-standard English)

Ahh – loose, lose, what difference does it make, eh? You know what I mean.

Confusing lose and loose happens not just in Cayman, but all over the English-speaking world. Unfortunately, the rest of the world isn’t doing anything to fix the problem, so we must fix it ourselves – if we can.

The functional illiteracy of so many of our graduates of government schools has been covered by several posts on this blogsite. It’s good to see Rotary getting involved, at this time. If they can keep theirs a private-sector program, their efforts should be very productive. The Education bureaucrats will only jerk them around, if they push their way in.

The “glass ceilings” encountered by victims of our government-schools system have been written about on this site, too, in several posts. Nothing constructive ever gets done about that problem. In December 2010, in a blog titled Everybody’s Cheating, I outlined clearly the stand-off between the Immigration authorities and private-sector employers.

Those particular authorities would rather have Cayman’s private-sector disappear altogether than compromise their dream of total state control of the private-sector workforce. Theirs is the same ideal that Communists have, if you think about it. God help us!

In the absence of improved education, the glass ceilings will last as long as government schools churn out graduates who don’t know the differences in usage and spelling between lose and loose, their, there & they’re, and here and hear, and so on and on. Seem and same, too, in Cayman. What can be done?

One thing that could be done, which I wouldn’t mind getting involved in myself, is to hold classes (free to all comers) in what could be called “Conversational English”. Since the major fault lies in written English, not spoken, it may seem an odd title; but to call it by a realistic name (“Learning proper English” or “English as a foreign language”) would offend the political establishment, and the bureaucratic one too. Would “Through the Looking-Glass Ceiling” be creative enough, do you think? You never know.

A child who is never taught proper grammar, and writes “he is suppose to be here” or “he trick me”, doesn’t know what a past participle is. A smart child will usually correct his usage by paying attention to the way words are used by others, in speech or in writing, but if he doesn’t catch all his mistakes he will be dismissed as ignorant. In speech, he may receive the benefit of doubt – but in writing, not. Emails provide a harsh test of English usage, as we see from comments on Internet forums and the like.

Is punctuation even a tiny part of any syllabus in government schools these days, anywhere in the world? It’s hard to tell. Few high-school graduates seem to know when to use which marks, and when not. Unwarranted apostrophes commonly betray an ignorance of plural and possessive forms that has survived thirteen years of schooling.

Greengrocers can be forgiven for advertising tomatoe’s and bean’s, because they write a special dialect of English called (jokingly) Grocerese; but in other contexts the usage simply screams, “I am ignorant beyond redemption; ignore everything I say”. Why haven’t our state educators sorted this out before now?

In many cases, it will be necessary to teach something about the origins of words and expressions. Explaining the differences between the origins of premier and premiere, rogue and rouge, would surely be more satisfactory than insisting on learning the differences by rote. A hare-brained person would be explained as one having the erratic thinking pattern of an excited hare. A hair-raising experience, on the other hand, has nothing to do with hares, however excited.

Friday, September 7, 2012

A day late and a dollar short (the FCO and Cayman)

Again – or still – we are fretting over the possibility that incompetent bureaucrats (in both London and Cayman) and ignorant local politicians will put an early end to Cayman’s boom. The politicians have alienated pretty much all foreign-born residents, and the bureaucrats have alienated pretty much all non-bureaucrats.

The Immigration authorities, who are all bloodline Caymanians, are philosophically opposed to making life comfortable for non-Caymanians of any variety. Expats (whether immigrants or transients) have no true friends in high places, generally speaking.

The prospect of discriminatory taxes and levies on expats is the straw that may well break the camel’s back. Unless the FCO backs out of its longtime alliance with the local anti-expat lobby (which includes all elected MLAs), Cayman’s prosperity will go the way of Nassau’s in the 1970s. The events of the past few months have been ominous.

Memo to the FCO clerks in London... Sucking-up to the Lobby will only bring grief. Please stop doing it. Small-town “granny-wits” are enough to run a community of simple fisher-folk (as ours used to be), but not an international tax haven. Cayman’s is a sophisticated service-economy that needs at least some of its local rulers to have some first-hand experience of the outside world.

I’ve just read the US Congress’s report on the HSBC Bank’s money-laundering allegations. Our local Monetary Authority – government’s regulator – deserves a triple-Z-minus for its utter failure to discover the Bank’s reported compliance failures. Will the FCO remove the personnel responsible for the failures? Of course not. The inevitable result will be more of the same, as far as one can imagine. Sigh.

Our current Constitution is a grab-bag of childish fancies and prejudices. Britain made a serious strategic error in nodding it through in 2009. Suddenly, we had a Premier and a Protocol Office: motorcycle escorts, personal bodyguards, and luxury vehicles became de rigueur for our local nabobs. New slush funds brought new ways to waste ever more millions of dollars.

What a mess it all is now. No audited financial statements exist to show what our total public indebtedness is; government deficits are envisaged from now until Kingdom Come. What on earth was London thinking? Nothing intelligent, apparently.

It took until this year, 2012, for London to notice the mess. Only then did the FCO clerks twig the full effect of their collective Attention Deficit Disorder. Only now are they suddenly aware of the need for independent audits of government accounts, and for prudent monitoring of public expenditures. Even now, their latest proposals call for only the barest minimum of fiscal responsibility from the same people who got us into the mess.

The FCO’s intervention is a day late and a dollar short, as the saying goes. Unless and until long-term immigrants are allowed to participate fully in local governance, nothing will improve. We aren’t holding our breath; with each week of inaction that passes, more of us lose confidence in the FCO's ability to cope.

In 1997 the UK’s National Audit Office warned the FCO that inattention to the Overseas Territories had created a significant contingent liability. Since then, that contingent liability has increased massively. Nobody knows what it amounts to now. Britain’s own government finances are in such chaos that the Territories’ debts may be a drop in the bucket of Britain’s public debt. Nevertheless, one can measure the effect in terms of straws and camels’ backs.

The FCO is not literally “a day late and a dollar short”. It is at least fifteen years late and several billion dollars short. If we could be sure that its ADD were cured, we would feel a whole lot more comfortable.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

On the buses (T-12 The Middle East – 1965)

(This is the twelfth in my series on travels in the ‘60s, for my grandchildren to read when they’re old enough to appreciate it.)

Travelling “poor” isn’t always fun. Once you’re committed to hitch-hiking, you have to wait in rain, hail or snow, and take whatever vehicles come along. If you’re on a back road and there are no vehicles, tough. I once (on my own) had to bed down in a ditch beside a road in northern Finland in drizzling rain. My first ride next morning was in a slow old tractor. Ah well, I was glad of the shelter.

Sometimes, you can get lucky. Linda once stormed out of a hostel in Greece before dawn after a big fight with her travelling companion, and hitched a ride with an unshaven middle-aged truck-driver who promised her breakfast with his wife at his home just down this side-track. And, an innocent breakfast with his wife is what she got, plus a ride back to the highway afterwards. (As it happened, she met up with me that evening, so her luck was really in that day, obviously...)

We tell people we hitched around the Middle East for three months, but it wasn’t all hitching. There were some boats – the cattle-boat to Kuwait, and ferries from Lebanon to Egypt and back via Cyprus. There were trains from Alexandria to Cairo and return, and there was the Mercedes I drove into Tehran. And there were buses, whenever trucks weren’t available.

Our budget could cope with local buses designed for poor peasants, but not with long-distance intercity coaches – at least not at the prices offered at the ticket-offices. By accident, we discovered a way around that financial barrier. We told the ticket-office in Shiraz (southern Iran) that we couldn’t afford their coach, and walked a mile to the edge of town to try our luck hitching. The only vehicle that stopped for us, eventually, was the same coach we’d turned down at the depot. The conductor invited us to buy a ride.

With one foot on the step to show willing (but only one foot, in case the driver took off suddenly with us on board and in no position to haggle), I settled for about a third of the proper fare. No ticket, of course, and the price had to meet with the approval of the paying passengers as well as the two rogues who pocketed the money. The ethical question boiled down to “Is it fair to all concerned?” All those present, at least.

We’d have gotten no respect if we’d paid the conductor's asking price. As it was, our deal was greeted with murmurs of approval, and we proved our worth by joining in the enthusiastic cries of Inch’allah! (“Praise the Lord!” more or less) as we sped around every tight corner in the middle of the road.

The only time we had to pay full price on an intercity coach in the Middle East was from Baghdad to Amman, across 500 miles of desert. There were no local buses on that route, and no trucks willing to take passengers. The coach was going on to Syria, so those of us headed for Amman were bundled into a fleet of taxis for the last thirty miles. More Mercedes, not nearly as new as our first one, a couple of months earlier.

Neither of us ever got motion sickness, that I can recall. Just as well, because bus drivers all over the world make no concessions to passengers who get sick. Many years later, we had a bus trip in Bali that stands out in my memory. It was stinking hot – really stifling – and Linda sat up on the front step while I grabbed a window-seat just in case. I was fine, as it happened, but the man next to me had to reach across from time to time to throw regurgitated rice from his hand out the window. Most of it got there safely, though not all.

Thursday, August 30, 2012

In defence of Offshore tax havens

Except when the residents of any community are not genuinely free to leave it (for whatever reason), logic tells us that members of the community have consented to be bound by all the community’s laws. That’s only common sense. They may not like all the laws; they may even hate and resent some of them, and agitate to have them changed. But whatever their feelings, they always have these three options. 1) They can stay and work to change the laws they hate; 2) they can stay and accept the laws they hate; or 3) they can leave. I can’t think of a fourth option.

Tax laws, gun laws, traffic laws, abortion laws, it doesn’t matter which laws. If your strata committee orders you to paint your front door purple, and you don’t like purple, the same three options exist. If your spouse snores all night and keeps you awake, same thing. “Community” is a broad concept.

If a community’s rulers are crooks or charlatans, liars or tax-dodgers; if they are sex-maniacs or half-wits or psychopaths; if they do things that are illegal, immoral or stupid: the options are always the same. The USA has been cursed with elected or appointed officers who are all of those things; so has Britain; so have most nations in history. In all cases, their subjects have been faced with the same three options. Some of their subjects have knuckled under, some have rebelled, some have fled.

As a longtime resident of an Offshore tax-haven (and a former resident of two others), I marvel at the criticism levelled at Cayman, Bahamas, Bermuda and all the other Offshore centres. Lately, there has been a lot of fuss in the USA over Mitt Romney’s use of Cayman to minimise his exposure to US taxes. I find little to like about Romney, and I know almost nothing about US tax laws: but I find it hard to believe that he has defied the laws. More likely, he is simply taking advantage of loopholes in them.

In technical terms: he would be avoiding taxes, not evading them. Avoidance is legal, evasion is illegal, and the practical difference is the price of a good tax-lawyer. Logic tells us that Americans who have the means to leave their country but don’t, have consented to accept their tax laws, or are working to change them. Hey, that’s life. Leave us out of it.

Offshore tax-haven sectors, generally speaking, exist to accommodate rich people with clever and high-priced lawyers. Poor people can’t afford to pay expensive lawyers to read every line of the wretched IRS code. Clever lawyers sniff out loopholes in the code, and recommend them to their rich clients in exchange for exorbitant fees.

Americans who resent Offshore tax-havens should ask themselves this: Who is it that composes the IRS code, and leaves the loopholes? The US Congress and its minions, that’s who. Second question: When each loophole is discovered by some clever and high-priced lawyer, whose responsibility is it to close the loopholes so that they can’t ever be used again? The US Congress again. Well, fancy that!

Who benefits from the existence of the loopholes, besides Mitt Romney? Answer: IRS employees, clever and high-priced lawyers and their employees, residents of Offshore tax-havens, Mitt Romney and colleagues, and – ta-dah! Members of the US Congress and their minions. Sigh. Who ya gonna call – taxbusters? Huh. Ain’t nobody here but us chickens, boss!

We in the tax-havens don’t feel guilty in the least. We pay plenty of taxes, down here: just no Income Tax. We believe Income Tax is theft. Well, isn’t it?

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Our bloated public sector

Why is there so much fuss about laying off government workers, and so little fuss about private-sector ones? The economic effect of laying off government workers is actually the lesser.

Every fired employee in Cayman gets whatever severance pay is due, plus accrued vacation pay and pensions entitlement. Everybody is added to the unemployment registers, and some become an additional burden on the Social Services budget.

But with government workers, there is no diminution of economic productivity, since governments produce nothing of economic value. Besides operating loss-making enterprises, most of what a government does is transfer money from some citizens to others.

Anyway, laying off government workers is only a sustainable saving in the context of a permanent reduction of the scope and reach of government. If a reduction is not intended to be permanent, it’s a waste of time. Closing down our Department of Tourism, for instance, or selling Cayman Airways to private investors, would be a futile gesture if the action were reversed as soon as the immediate fiscal crisis were over.

An across-the-board layoff of even a third of our government employees would save over $100 million – say 1500 workers at the average $40,000 annual salary, plus perks and overheads, plus office space. There would be a one-off charge against Public Expenditure for severance pay and the rest, but that would be largely offset by the removal of lifetime medical care for former Civil Servants and their extended families.

The Social Services Department would be hit for a few million dollars a year until the redundant workers found jobs somewhere in the private sector. If they could, of course. In an economic recession, there are few jobs available in the private sector, especially for government workers whose skills and work-ethic are not regarded at all highly by private employers. Hmmm. What to do?

In Cayman – no problem, man! Here, the natural thing to do would (will) be for government to force private employers to hire all the laid-off native Caymanians among them, regardless of quality. Bizarre though that will sound to non- residents reading this commentary, that is exactly what will happen, if our London masters insist on a reduction of Caymanians employed in the public sector.

After all, our Immigration Monster has no qualms at any time about forcing private companies to hire Caymanians they don’t want or need. Politically appointed commissars already monitor all private-sector hirings, promotions and firings, as part of the permanent affirmative-action program for native-Caymanians.

You’d think that Cayman’s rulers (at least the ones in London) would be keen to raise these Islands’ productivity and efficiency to competitive levels. I mean – do they (our rulers) want to break the current pattern of irresponsible governance, or don’t they care about the future?

A labour-market model adopted in Britain’s Caribbean colonies in the 1830s in the wake of the Emancipation of the Slaves is ridiculously inappropriate these 180 years later. It’s not just archaic and inefficient, in an economic recession it’s downright counter-intuitive.

Unless the FCO recognises the economic virtue of a free market for migrant workers, all the present quibbling about a sustainable Budget will go for naught. Imposing extra taxes on a private sector already struggling with excessive payrolls imposed by the commissars? London, what are you thinking?

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Marketing skills – FAIL (the West’s credibility)

A few months ago a Chinese dissident was somehow smuggled into the US Embassy in Beijing. Although embarrassed and angry, the Chinese government allowed the dissident safe passage to the international airport and a flight to the USA. Last week an Australian dissident was granted political asylum in the Ecuadorean Embassy in London. Embarrassed and angry, the UK government refused the dissident safe passage to the airport and a flight to Ecuador.

What a contrast! What a topsy-turvy world we human-rights advocates find ourselves in, when a British government is more openly thuggish and less honourable than a Chinese one. Overnight, sixty years of propaganda, painting the Chinese Communists as savages, have gone up in smoke. It’s as though two rival baby-food manufacturers were found to have poison in their jars, and one recalled all its jars and the other didn’t. “Propaganda” is simply the marketing of ideas, and Britain’s idea of human rights failed miserably, last week.

We think of marketing as a particularly Western skill. After all, it is Western companies that sell fizzy drinks and cigarettes and hamburgers in all corners of the world. It’s a puzzling anomaly that Western governments have become so hopeless at political propaganda in recent times. They used to be so good at it. What went wrong?

The US is the classic example of marketing failure. Yes, it can still bamboozle most of its subjects – and not just Nascar Nation, either. But its hold on the minds of its middle-class citizens is weakening steadily, as is its credibility with the Western middle class in general. Invading Iraq & Libya & Yemen & Somalia & Syria while preaching peace to Iran is humbug pure and unadulterated.

Last month America’s rulers bribed and bullied Australia’s politicians to allow a US military base in Darwin, as a tripwire for any enemy invasion – “enemy” being what Americans call a “dog-whistle” code meaning China, on the Pacific rim. Grateful applause from the politicians and the gullible, scorn from much of the educated middle class who regard the USA itself as the most likely enemy of the Australian people. Whatever else China is, it’s not an empire on the rampage. It’s not the world’s Bad Guy any more.

And that perception illustrates the failure of the West’s contemporary propaganda. Today, Amerika (sic) is the Bad Guy, at least to those of us who reject the biased reporting of the bought-and-paid-for mainstream media. We don’t believe what Big Brother tells us, though we do believe in Big Brother.

In Orwell’s novel “1984”, Britain’s role was that of a cipher – “Airstrip One”, a frontier post of a futuristic American Empire that is perpetually at war with its chosen enemies. The purpose of the war is not conquest so much as the utilisation of resources and the suppression of middle-class dissidents and the ignorant lower classes.

(The book implies that the resources are all owned by the state, but they could as easily be owned by the individuals behind the imperial throne. Communism and fascism were equally despicable, in Orwell's eyes.)

One of Orwell's characters wonders whether the war itself is perhaps a fiction, with the Empire bombarding its own territory in an endless series of false-flag attacks. Hmmm. Last week a former US Marine was declared mentally ill and locked away for publicly disbelieving the official conspiracy theory of 9/11. By 1984’s definition, it was mad to disbelieve whatever the Ministry of Truth said was the truth.

Today, the book seems to have been adopted as a kind of instruction-manual by Western rulers. That’s how today’s middle-class skeptics view Britain’s threat to abduct the Australian dissident and deposit him in the Ministry’s torture-camp at Guantanamo. Well, I shouldn’t say “torture-camp”: better perhaps say it’s a compound where salesmen can exercise their persuasion-techniques on reluctant focus-groups. (Now that’s clever marketing, eh?)