Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Income Tax would destroy Cayman

Our local rulers’ much-publicised proposal to impose a tax on income generated by non-Caymanians may already have put Cayman onto a slippery slope from which there is no escape. I don’t think the proposal will be implemented, but the very suggestion is scaring the bejesus out of our tax-haven professionals and their clients, and amusing those international publications that have heard of it.

The proposal is irresponsible in the extreme, and betrays an alarming ignorance of what makes tax-havens tick. Our professionals are all aware of the danger posed by that ignorance. They also know how irresolute the British Foreign & Commonwealth Office (FCO) is in the face of bluster from our local politicians. One can well imagine that the professionals have some good emergency plans in place.

I don’t think Britain wants to see the end of Cayman’s tax-haven; it is too valuable an asset to British commercial interests. However, there may be other factors in play that haven’t been disclosed. For all we know, Britain is planning to do what it did to Diego Garcia and turn Cayman over to the Americans. The last thing the US would want is de-facto independence in islands so close to its naval base in Cuba. You never know!

The income-tax proposal and the political rhetoric that accompanies it have whipped the vocal minority of Cayman’s xenophobes into a frenzy of anticipation. Taxing expats’ income is wonderful news for the “stick it to the expats” crowd. All the same, Work Permit foreigners would be wise not to rush to the exits just yet. Yes, they should quietly sell their houses and apartments, if they can, and shift all their long-term savings out of Cayman. (Expats on Work Permits are damn fools if they buy property here anyway, even without the latest threat.) But there’s no need to panic, just yet.

Even the bare bones of the proposal – a tax on wages and directors’ fees and the like – would take a long time to implement. Government’s legal draughtsmen lack expertise in their job, and competence. Has there ever been a Caymanian law that didn’t need amending within three weeks of its passage? No there hasn’t. A new tax-collection bureaucracy would take some time to organise. It can’t piggy-back on the existing procedure that collects pensions-contributions, as has been suggested.

More than in any other place I can think of, a new tax law would need to take account of the strength of the resistance. Cayman is an island of tax-dodgers, after all. Tax-haven professionals in every tax-free jurisdiction run rings around their counterparts in the tax offices of the world’s major nations. Unless it could recruit some experienced poachers and turn them into gamekeepers, Cayman’s tax-collection agency would stand no chance at all.

Also, ours is a business culture that is steeped in secrecy. Giving tax-office clerks the authority to inspect individual and corporate bank and brokerage accounts is out of the question. Even if it were to happen, much taxable income would be quickly redesignated as non-taxable – bonuses or consultancy fees paid into overseas accounts, for instance. Or, “exempted” companies would be utilised, of the kind used by Offshore clients. Would the tax-inspectors demand to see the bank accounts of every exempt company? Not if the Offshore sector were still in operation, it wouldn’t.

The taxing of expats’ remuneration would only be the beginning, of course. Caymanians’ wages etc would be next, then everybody’s dividends, then corporate profits. Government’s extravagances – the root cause of all our fiscal problems – will never end until the FCO calls our politicians’ bluff and takes direct taxation off the table.

It may be too late to act, even this early. Cayman’s Offshore haven has a lot of momentum, and will take a lot of stopping. But if anything can do it, it’s the prospect of a tax on income and profits.

Friday, July 27, 2012

Could these be the last Olympic Games?

Ah, the thrill of the sprints! But oh, the boredom of the national anthems! Surely even Americans are embarrassed with all the hype when the Imperial anthem is played for the hundredth time, and the hundredth American flag is paraded up and down the arena. Don’t we yearn to hear the anthem of the Falkland Islands or Liechtenstein, just once? Well, maybe this will be China’s year - who knows?

The whole Olympic spectacle is a celebration of tribal values. Maybe it always was. History records the names of some of the individual winners at the ancient Games – but rarely of the city-states that sponsored them. Did the states bask in the reflected glory of the winners? Maybe they did. Human nature can’t have changed much.

Maybe today’s offensive chants of “USA! USA!” were “Spart-ah! Spart-ah!” three thousand years ago. Then as now, maybe the Games tended to unite the factions within each winner’s nation while stressing the inferiority of each loser’s. “We’re number one! We’re number one!” If China wins enough medals we will get sick of the cry, “Zhongguo! Zhongguo!” (“China!” in Chinese).

Hypocrisy is the theme, and always was. Individual athletes are encouraged to be kind to one another, while their families back home elect (or at least obey) psychopaths bent on slaughtering the families of certain other athletes. For the duration of the Games, the audiences show remarkable tolerance towards athletes who wrap themselves in the national flags of the most brutal of nations. It doesn’t make sense.

The 2012 Games are especially hypocritical. Some commentators have pointed out the similarities between the militarism of these and the 1936 Berlin Games, when it was Germany that was on the prowl for war. Were the armed forces of Germany as involved as the armed forces of Britain are today? In 1980 when Russia was “The Evil Empire”, were the Games as militarised as now?

The British Army will be using the Games to experiment with civilians as human shields. Who ever thought we’d see rocket-launchers sited on blocks of flats in East London, to be fired at attackers – or imagined attackers? That sort of thing is a War Crime when it’s done in Syria, isn’t it? Ah well, all together now: “Ingerland! Ingerland!”

I have a dream, that Olympic athletes will one day again compete as individuals, with no flags and no anthems to bore us. It may seem perverse, but I would prefer commercial sponsorships than national. Coca-Cola may ban the wearing of Pepsi shirts by audience-members (which it does, in London); but at least there is no Coca-Cola Tribe whose President will be firing rockets into the villages of Pepsi loyalists during the running of the marathon. No Ford Tribe will be invading the homes of Dodge loyalists and raping their wives during some of the medals presentations. National sponsors, however...

The Games’ organisers are being criticised for accepting sponsorship from Dow Chemical, because one of its products (Agent Orange) was used to mutilate millions of Vietnamese children during one of America’s past invasions. Well, Dow Chemical is a nasty company with a nasty ethic. But let’s be fair: Agent Orange only became a means of mass mutilation when it was dropped from US planes piloted by so-called war-heroes commanded by psychopaths both military and political.

There aren’t all that many producers that don’t benefit from military ventures one way or another. My father accidentally made a modest fortune when wool rose in value during the West’s invasion of Korea in the 1950s. The soldiers needed warm clothes in the Korean winters, and it made sense for him to shear the wool off his sheep and sell it. I don’t say Dow Chemical is quite as innocent as he was, but the principle is the same.

Monday, July 23, 2012

Amnesty International and the CIA

I signed a new Will the day before we flew to Norway last month. If the plane had gone down the Will probably wouldn’t have been enforceable anyway, but you never know. Linda and I own all our assets as joint tenants with right of survivorship, and as the older I would have been presumed to have died first, absent any evidence to the contrary. Linda’s Will would have been in effect, not mine. Nevertheless...

The last-minute change I made was to disinherit Amnesty International. I know, I know: it’s a fine organisation with a proud record of battling for political prisoners around the world, including those in Guantanamo and Bagram and all the other US and NATO torture-camps.

Until now. Now, change is in the offing. Earlier this year, the US State Department parachuted one of its trained stooges into the top job at Amnesty’s US branch. According to Wikipedia, she advocates a program of military intervention as a way of promoting democratic agendas all over the world – presumably as defined by the US State Department. (Sometimes, you have to destroy a country in order to save it, right?)

Amnesty will continue to do good work, but now "good work" will be what the State Department says it is. Amnesty's agenda will be set by the CIA, which is the Department’s military wing. We can imagine how the agenda will change: political prisoners in Iran and Syria, OK: in Israel and Saudi Arabia, not so much. There will be a shift in the organisation’s priorities, as there was at Human Rights Watch, where the appointee worked last. That body became increasingly regarded as a CIA front during her time there.

What an appalling betrayal of trust those takeovers represent! We had Amnesty down to receive a third of our assets – a serious commitment on our part. What should we do now? Our own family gets first dibs on our savings, when we die, but we have never believed its members should receive the whole kit and caboodle.

So, as long as the Salvation Army remains uncorrupted, we will gladly give it the money instead. Will the Salvos ever be suborned by national rulers who believe that mutilation and slaughter of foreign civilians are actions to admire? We can’t imagine the Salvos’ good works would ever be compromised by national or tribal considerations, the way Amnesty’s and Human Rights Watch’s have been or will be.

One-time bequests to charities are easy enough to arrange; an extra paragraph in a Will is all it takes. Permanent and complex Foundations are fine for the super-rich, who don’t mind paying super-lawyers to set them up and administer. Those are the ones we all read about in newspapers and books – Ford, Rhodes, Templeton, Rockefeller, Gates, and many others not quite so famous. Most of them bring super-benefits, whether tangible or intangible, to large numbers of people in different parts of the world.

Incidentally, there is even a Ken Dart Foundation, not so well known but easily found on Google. It sponsors, among other things, the internationally involved Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma, thereby encouraging the kind of fighters for freedom that Amnesty made its name defending.

Those native Caymanians who are forever bad-mouthing Ken Dart for not giving away more local freebies than he does, in this richest of all Caribbean islands, should give the man respect for his Foundation’s work. Don’t let Cayman’s entitlement-culture blind any of us to the needs of the rest of the world.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

The weather in Norwegian (foreign languages)

Our granddaughters in Norway have received their annual English lesson, and this time they didn’t even have to leave home. Our son lives in a modest hytte (shack) thirty minutes from Oslo, and they were staying with him the whole two weeks we were there recently. We, for our part, got our annual lesson in Norwegian – though a less productive exercise would be hard to find.

Mainly, it’s because we don’t try hard enough. English is the language of the world, and the girls will have to learn it sooner or later. Their new little brother, too, though he doesn’t even speak Norwegian yet. Forty or fifty years ago, daily exposure to a foreign language would have driven us (Linda and me) to learn it, but we’re too old now.

The Norwegian grammar is much like the English, and while the vocab is unfamiliar it’s not as foreign as, say, Chinese or Arabic. I’ve learned not to call a hytte a hut, unless it’s a basic overnight refuge for cross-country skiers; otherwise, it’s a cabin – or, if it doesn’t have running water, a shack. Ross’s is a shack – no disrespect.

When I hitch-hiked through Scandinavia in my distant youth, I lucked into a short-term job in a farm-home for autistic children in Sweden, and picked up just enough Swedish to get by. Even today I can still read Swedish sub-titles on the TV more easily than Norwegian ones. Watching the weather in Swedish is therefore more informative for me than it is in Norwegian. Swedish words have always seemed closer to English, although that may be attributable to which dialects I’ve been exposed to and which not.

Only in recent times have the coastal villages (viks) of Norway been connected by road. The only means of access used to be by sea – good practice for the Viking raids on the coasts of the British Isles and Normandy in centuries past. Roads and television have lessened most of the dialectal differences.

We met the other grandparents of the baby at a birthday party for his cousin. They struggled manfully to converse with us, but the language barrier was too great; we gravitated naturally to the few cousins and uncles who could speak English. Actually, our presence was a social strain on several levels. Our son had done their daughter wrong (!), and was not invited. The language barrier was probably a mercy. (He did crash the baby’s Naming Day, under cover of a human shield comprising his daughters and their mother. That showed prudent family-planning, in a sense...)

It’s always embarrassing, being caught short linguistically. The girls chatter happily with their dad and his girl-friend in Norwegian, but courtesy demanded that they speak English in our presence. A few years ago I took a Berlitz course that was poorly taught and utterly useless. Be warned: Berlitz courses aren’t designed for conversation with young grandchildren. So, we have to pick up bits and pieces as we go.

People whose native language is English are so lucky! There will usually be someone who speaks it, everywhere in the world – on the beaten track, at least. If not one’s fellow grandparents, at least some of their relatives; if not one’s grandchildren, at least their mothers; if not one shopkeeper, then the next one along the row. (My travel tales on this blog, T1 to T10, illustrate the kind of problems encountered off the beaten track.)

To compensate for our failure to speak foreign languages, Linda & I carefully avoid using English slang and colloquialisms, and try to use perfect grammar. We recognise a duty to make ourselves clearly understood in English; it’s the least we can do.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

The domestication of men

They used to call it “the seven-year itch”. After seven years of marriage, in the days when marriage was “till death do us part”, men were statistically most likely to stray from the conjugal bed and take up with other women. Such affairs were usually temporary. Usually the other woman was left in the lurch when papa remembered his obligations to his wife and kids, or perhaps the financial cost of divorce. As Marilyn Monroe famously sang in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes,
He’s your guy when stocks are high, but beware when they start to descend – 
For that’s when the louses go back to their spouses. Diamonds are a girl’s best friend! 

Judging by the world’s three billion women, as a species they seem to be programmed to bear children and nurture them; the world’s three billion men are designed to sire children and ignore them. Women’s instinct seems to be to need families and a life that doesn’t threaten the welfare of their children; men’s is to seek companionship and a life that doesn’t interfere with that.

I’m well aware that a few millions of both sexes have progressed beyond such instincts. Good for them; but I’m writing about the vast majorities. Ethical concepts such as individual freedom and the perceived right to choose the way one lives are historically recent – and of limited application outside the Western system of governance. If that’s so, how and why did the two sexes reach a compromise in the Western system?

In other words, how did Western men become domesticated, in defiance of their sex’s contrary instincts and tradition? Why do they stay with their wives and kids despite their seven-year itches? And even when they don’t stay, in the advanced Western culture of serial monogamy and divorce, why do fathers (more often than not) keep in touch with their children?

After seven years of marriage there are, on average, two or three young children underfoot who divert their mother’s attention from the man in her life. If she wants to keep him and his financial support, and he wants her to stay active and attractive, she has little option but to become his slave – just as she would be in all the other cultures throughout human history. Oh yes, there’s been a queen here and an influential courtesan there, and Joan of Arc..., but the mass of women have always led lives of quiet desperation far greater than the mass of men could ever comprehend. They still do.

Except in the Western world – and even in it, sometimes – women have to leave their homes and families and move to the homes and families of the men who have bought and paid for them. Is it their fathers who oblige them to do that, or their mothers? Their fathers, almost certainly. When they (the sold-and-bought women) produce children, they give them up to their men’s clans or tribes, to live in peace or war at the discretion of those clans or tribes.

Traditionally, a man’s clan or tribal duties include providing children to his clan’s or tribe’s inventory of males – cannon-fodder for war or defence. The taboo of incest may well have originated when clans first noticed the physical debilitation of the children of siblings. Maybe, too, the practice of female infanticide originated as a means of depriving rival clans of breeding stock.

I’ve long puzzled over why Western women – so liberated and sophisticated, relative to their sisters in the Third World – don’t kick up more of a fuss about their children going off to unnecessary wars. Having carefully nurtured their babies through all the dangers of childhood, how can mothers send them off to die for the supposed honour of the community? It doesn’t make sense, except in terms of an atavistic submission to their lords-and-masters’ tribal instincts. The child of a slave-woman is also a slave. That was and is the rule in chattel slavery – a rule that may have begun right back with the very first tribes of pre-history.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Clean sheets (T 10 - Iraq 1960s)

(This is the tenth of my travellers’ tales for my grandchildren. Iraq, January 1965) 

We had reached the street when the landlady called us back. “Oh, all right”, she said. “I’ll give you fresh sheets, you cheeky young buggers.” “For the same price?” “Yes, yes, of course for the same price!” So we went inside again and watched while she re-made the bed with freshly washed sheets and pillow-cases. Not particularly clean, but un-slept-on since they had last been bashed on rocks in the local stream. No black hairs from last night’s occupant, for instance.

She had been indignant at our indignation. “But these sheets are fresh! They’ve only been on the bed for ten days, for goodness sake.” She held out her hands for me to count her fingers. The conversation was all in fluent Arabic, at least on her side. We had long ago learnt the words for “clean sheets”, and I figured out what the ten fingers meant and signified. She made a mistake mentioning the ten days, though actually it was the greasy black hairs on the pillow that lost her the argument.

We were chums again, and I paid her in advance for the night’s lodging. We reckoned it wasn’t bad value for fifty cents. It wasn’t even the worst accommodation we’d had in our travels. What we referred to as The Bridal Suite had been pretty dreadful, in some other town along the way. It was a room with walls made of brown paper – scraps of varying shapes and sizes held together with sticky tape, from floor to ceiling on three sides with a concrete wall on the fourth. It was designed to give the most basic privacy for the rare married couple on a trip.

That “most basic” had been debased a great deal since it had been first constructed. Every male who ever rented a bed in the dormitory beyond the brown paper had poked a hole in the brown paper in hopes of catching a glimpse of female flesh. Linda swore she saw eyes peering in through the holes, and maybe she did. Good luck to them; we slept fully clothed. In those parts of the Third World, very few women stayed at public inns. The only customers were men, who all slept in the one room. Only rarely did we get a room to ourselves.

Our overnight beds were usually pretty crappy, even by the standards of the Middle East. We were travelling poor, after all. Maybe it was our insistence on clean (fresh) sheets that kept us healthy. Never in all our travels did we encounter bed-bugs.

Never, either, did we feel in the slightest danger in our sleeping quarters. We were foreign backpackers in places that had (mostly) never seen backpackers – or foreigners of any kind. The people in each slum relished the chance to exercise their traditional hospitality towards strangers who came in peace.

They jostled for the privilege of leading us to places to stay and cafes to eat at, followed us into the kitchens while we chose our food, and watched us eat it. And as often as not, bought us tea afterwards and exuded goodwill. (These are the people whose children and grandchildren our Western soldiers are slaughtering, now; you can guess whose side Linda and I are on.)

Naturally, they wondered what on earth we were doing there, and speculated freely among themselves. But they had no way to ask us, nor we to tell them. We could manage only the smallest of small talk, with much waving of hands and regular reference to the basic translation-dictionary I’d bought in London. They probably wondered about that.

The only book many of them had encountered would have been the Koran, and they knew this wasn’t that! One way or another, the book and the hand-gestures and body-language must have covered the cultural gaps, and generated inter-cultural goodwill. One way or another, we always got fresh sheets when we asked for them. In the end.