Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Leaving home (international travel)

Linda and I sometimes wonder what will happen to our house when we’re gone. Our son will inherit it, and his children after him if he leaves a proper Will. We both come from unsentimental families, where homes are concerned, so we don’t expect our Cayman one to become any kind of ancestral shrine.

Our respective childhood homes were long ago sold to strangers. So were our parents’ childhood homes – except my father’s, which his brother inherited and still lives in; his children live 10,000 miles away; they won’t want it. Our respective ancestors never had any ancestral homes worth venerating; the families shifted around within the British Isles until they emigrated. There is a lot of restlessness in our blood and in our son’s and grandchildren’s. In Norway, the girls’ father lives in a rented forest-cottage (and owns a second, bought for refurbishment and sale), and their mother lives in another.

Ross once bought a strip of hillside in Guatemala (total area 6000 sq ft), with a big tree in the middle and a fabulous view of Lake Atitlan. He and some of the local Mayans built a basic shack in the tree, and his little family lived there for a time. But last time I checked, Guatemala had no central land-registry, so how much validity could his document of title have? Anyway, a tree-house hardly qualifies as an ancestral home. Linda and I once bought a town-lot in the New Hebrides in the South Pacific, before it went independent as Vanuatu. The new government promptly stole all foreign-owned land that hadn’t been built on. Ah well, that’s what a lot of newly independent countries do.

Most young Caymanians can’t comprehend the absence of mental attachment to a home or to a settled community. They don’t realise what their commitment to their island-home costs them, in terms of opportunities. Actually, it’s a very recent cultural development. Caymanians of the same generations as my father and his father (born in the 1910s and the 1880s, respectively) were as adventurous as other British peoples scattered around the world. Unfortunately, the adventurous Caymanian spirit seems to have exhausted itself, since. And, yes, I do mean “unfortunately”.

There is much virtue in experimenting with new homes, and passing up a life of safety. Two of my Grandpa Barlow’s brothers died in their twenties while adventuring far from home. I don’t mean that dying in one’s twenties is something to aim for; I’m reasonably sure they didn’t aim for it. But one was killed by aborigines, panning for gold in the wild north of Queensland; the other died of malaria, working on a farm in Madagascar – and those were adventurous things. Plenty of Caymanians must have died of yellow fever in Panama in their twenties while digging the canal, and others in unrecorded hurricanes fishing off Cuba and Nicaragua. Not everybody’s luck is good luck.

Young Caymanian men who are trapped today under glass ceilings, or are unemployed, would get more sympathy if they brought some proof of initiative to the interview room, instead of relying on their birthright entitlement to a safe job in a safe place with a safe pension fifty years from now. I have long urged that every Caymanian school-leaver be given $1000 and a backpack and a 12-months ticket round the world. It’s a great idea.

There ought to be zero unemployment among young Caymanians – and there could be, if they were half the men their seafaring forebears were. And they would honour those forebears a whole lot more by emulating their spirit of adventure, than by staying home waiting for jobs to fall into their laps. If our MLAs had the welfare of our Islands at heart, they would tell our unemployed youth the same thing: get off your assets and go to where the jobs are.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Gold, and other currencies

It’s common practice for governments (national, provincial, municipal, parish) to pledge their expected future revenues as security for borrowings. Fair enough. The loans have to be repaid out of children’s and grandchildren’s taxes, but that’s okay. After all, each generation benefits from all the governmental infrastructure it inherits from its predecessors.

A problem arises only when future revenues fall short of expectations. Then, responsible governments hustle around and cut their expenditure, by discontinuing some services and reducing others. Irresponsible governments simply borrow more money. By that measure, Cayman’s rulers (politicians, senior Civil Servants and the British FCO) are irresponsible, as are Greece’s rulers and the other PIIGS’, and indeed every European nation’s government, and America’s.

National governments that find themselves over-borrowed against future tax revenues must watch their chickens coming home to roost. Their national currencies become unstable, as their state revenues steadily decline because of economic recessions. Sooner or later, Greece will be forced out of the Euro and will default on all its debts. The cost of imported goods will rise out of sight. All the other PIIGS will meet the same fate, unless they reduce the scope of government. What about Cayman and the Cayman Islands Dollar? Well, why would different rules apply to them?

Might the Euro fall in value, and/or the Pound Sterling and/or the US Dollar? Not all at once, of course, but in some kind of progressive slippage? The logical question, rarely answered satisfactorily, is: What might they fall in value against? My personal belief is that, in time, they will all be measured against a brand-new international currency based on the prices of certain commodities (selected by the corrupt banksters, who else?). “Commodities” covers all kinds of tradable raw materials: metals, crops, land, meat, even water; the viability of the imagined new currency will depend on which commodities are selected.

In the present absence of such a currency, many financial commentators use an ounce of pure gold as the standard by which they assess the values of national currencies. In 1971 an ounce of gold could be exchanged for US$35, today it is “worth” $1700, give or take. Now, EITHER the price of gold has risen to nearly fifty times its value of forty years ago OR the US currency has fallen to a fiftieth of its former value. Which is it? Well, an ounce of gold buys about the same today as it did back then, which means that its value has remained constant. It’s the paper currency whose value has deteriorated.

Imagine a new-born baby being given a $35 gift certificate in 1971 and his twin given a one-ounce gold coin. Guess which of them would be the most pleased today. The one with the coin could today buy almost fifty times as much stuff as his brother could, with the gift. I can hear my grand-daughters now, “Grandpa, thanks for the $1700 birthday gift certificate (as if...!), but could we please have a gold coin instead?”

Gold isn’t the answer to all the world’s problems. It’s just another currency, and it pays no dividends. But an ounce of it was a better gift than $35 cash in 1971, and most years since then. In forty years from now it might be worth – well, actually, it would be worth the same as it is now. Its value remains pretty constant. But dollar-bills might be worth a whole lot less. That coin might sell for $85,000 (fifty times $1700) in grossly devalued paper currency, when my girls are approaching retirement age.

Of course their pension funds may contain some shares of even higher value (weapons-manufacturers are bound to do well between now and then), but will the fund-managers be shrewd enough to have a diverse portfolio that includes some gold coins? I certainly hope so.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Investing for retirement

 Everybody saves for retirement, some more carefully than others. Some of us rely on government pensions to sustain us in our retirement, some on company pensions, some on private Pension Funds to which we have contributed. We trust the Pensions managers not to steal our money, and we trust them to invest it sensibly – in blue-chip bonds and shares denominated in reputable currencies.

If we want to gamble on dodgy nickel-miners or Third World bonds, we’ll do it with our play-money, thank you. We certainly don’t want anybody to gamble with our retirement savings. If they lost it, what would we do when we’re too old to work?

It’s a bit disconcerting to observe the shaky status of the Euro, the European currency that is used by a ragged assortment of seventeen nations – including what are charmingly called the PIIGS, pronounced “pigs” – Portugal, Ireland, Italy, Greece and Spain. Greece is the Western banksters’ chosen practice ground, where they experiment with how far a nation can be degraded before it collapses into a Police state.

Bankster is a new word combining the words “banker” and “gangster”. Banker in this usage refers to an investment-banker (merchant-banker, in England) – not a traditional, respected, straight-as-a-die clerk like the nice man or woman who stamps your deposit-slips.

Many of us are uncertain whether the world’s politicians and senior Civil Servants – in general – are too corrupt and irresponsible to be trusted. We need have little doubt with regard to those in the five PIIGS. There, corrupt banksters have bribed or bullied corrupt officials into pledging their governments’ future tax revenues as security for unnecessary loans.

The loans are (as often as not) spent on weapons to ward off imagined enemies. And, as often as not, the corrupt banksters own the weapons-manufacturers. And even more often than not, all the corrupt bribers and bullies get together and persuade the victim-nations to go to war by even more bribing and bullying, so that the weapons actually get used and have to be replaced with new ones. It’s a sweet deal.

Sometimes the loan-money is passed directly to the weapons-makers. Greece, poor and bankrupt, spent the whole of one of its recent bailout-tranches on new army tanks and other equipment. It doesn’t even have an enemy at the moment! Well, never mind, the banksters will find them one. Stand by for a false-flag attack by some CIA-sponsored gang based in Turkey.

The relevance of all this is that some of our own retirement-savings are invested (indirectly, at least) in PIIGS government bonds, some of which have no likelihood of being repaid except in grossly devalued currencies.

A few years ago I attended a couple of AGMs of one local Pension Fund, just to see what it was doing with my son’s savings. What a bunch of innocents its Directors and Investment Managers were. They didn’t have much of a clue about the outside world. As long as their portfolios were beating “the benchmark” (which they themselves had set), they were happy. Never mind if the US Dollar was going up or down; they had no idea at all how that might impact their members’ retirement savings.

All our local Pension Funds’ investments are governed by the Pensions Law, passed by our local parish-councillors, which permits some specified kinds of investments and forbids others. Last time I checked, it permitted Greek government bonds and forbade gold bullion. Sigh.

Friday, March 16, 2012

A back road to Bulgaria (T 6 - 1964/5)

(The sixth in my series of travel stories for the granddaughters – November 1964) 

The old peasant woman, comfortable in the passenger seat, gabbled away at me off and on for miles. I replied as civilly as I could, and asked her to tell me when we reached the turn-off to Bulgaria. Her side of the story, for her family that night, would be: “This young foreign man in his car (a car! My dear!) didn’t know where he was or why, or what I was telling him. I had to shout at him to make him stop where I wanted to get off. At that point, he didn’t know whether to go north or south!” She was relieved to be back on her feet again; I was annoyed in case I had missed the turn-off.

It was an unpaved back road that didn’t even show up on my map of Yugoslavia. The only car on the road was mine, and the old woman the only pedestrian – plodding along to who knew where for who knew how many miles. Common decency required that I stop and offer her a lift; common decency probably required that she accept. Whatever language she spoke, it wasn’t the Serbo-Croat of my dictionary. Wikipedia reckons it was a Macedonian dialect of Bulgarian, but I didn’t know that then.

I had indeed missed the turn-off. I recalled passing a weather-beaten wooden signpost with weird lettering, which probably didn’t spell “Bulgaria” anyway. Ah well, what can you do? The back road ended at the Greek border, so I crossed there and travelled for the next four months with a slowly expiring Bulgarian visa. That night I pulled up at the Youth Hostel in Thessaloniki, and the next night drank coffee on the roof with fellow-hostellers after watching the movie Zorba the Greek. I wrote about all that in January, though without mentioning the wretched old peasant woman who was responsible for the trouble and strife (Cockney slang) in my life ever since.

It’s hard to remember, now, why I had bothered to get a Bulgarian visa, back in London. Nobody ever deliberately headed for Bulgaria, except on the way through to somewhere else. Entering Bulgaria with Linda four months later was simplicity itself, with a visa from Istanbul. Leaving the country was rather more memorable, occurring on yet another back road. Yet again, my car was the only traffic for miles around – the only vehicle wanting to cross into Romania at this godforsaken spot, at least.

My side of the conversation went something like this, in pidgin German interspersed with occasional words from my Bulgarian-English dictionary. “It has been a pleasant stay in your beautiful country. Now please change our unspent local currency into Romanian currency. Oh, well, any currency will do. Well, if you don’t have any foreign currency, never mind; we will exchange it at the Romanian post just over there (a hundred yards across a bridge). What?! It’s illegal to take Bulgarian currency out of the country? Never mind, we’ll go back to the petrol pump a few miles back and spend it there. What do you mean you’ve already stamped us out of Bulgaria? Well, stamp us back in again, please. We would need another visa for that? And you aren’t authorised to issue visas? Sheesh. Tell you what, you keep our passports and we will drive back and get the petrol. Oh dear. We can’t travel in Bulgaria without a passport. So we must just give you the money, and you will give us a receipt? Hmm. I don’t think so.”

I demanded to speak with the Ministry of Tourism, then Foreign Affairs, then Internal Affairs, then the Prime Minister’s Office; oh, and the British Embassy. Please. Pronto. The phone rang hot for the next three hours, while we sulked in the car and wondered if we might have to stay in it all night.

 In the end the Romanians changed the money for us without a fuss. It wasn’t illegal for them, which was just as well, I guess.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

The names of God (in foreign languages)

“Any man’s death diminishes me, for I am involved in mankind.” John Donne, English priest. 

This Easter, coming up, it’s worth taking a look at what mankind is doing in the Middle East at the moment, in the names of God. The native peoples of the region have for years been resisting invasion and occupation by overseas nations – Britain, the USA and Israel, mainly. Religious differences are not among the official reasons for the invaders’ brutalities, but they have been a useful tool to suck in Christians and Jews in support of all the aggression. The victims’ god is an Evil God, and people like that must themselves be evil, right? It stands to reason. Sub-humans, in fact. Vermin, cockroaches: their lives are of no account.

The West’s Christian-Jewish mass media uses false translations and false-flag attacks as evidence of its enemies’ devilish designs; the Moslem mass media probably tries to do the same, though not to the point of endorsing overseas invasions. As in every war in history, each side claims that its god is superior to the other’s. Each piles disrespect on the other’s god, and on its name.

But the names of gods come and go with the spoken languages of peoples. The name of God in the Aramaic language of two thousand years ago was, actually, “Allah”. That was Jesus’s god, since he spoke Aramaic as his native language. The same name is used today not just by all Moslems, but also by all Christians in the Middle East, to the best of my knowledge. The name derives originally from the earliest reported Biblical name of a tribal god – Elohim, which is actually a plural form from the time before the Children of Israel settled on a single deity.

Most of the names of gods began as tribal names. Germanic Gott (= God) came from the tribe that called itself Goth. Southern Europeans use variants of the name of Zeus, which is traceable back to an early Sumerian god. In all the wars fought in medieval Europe, I’ve never read that Dieu or Dios was ever hated with the intensity that Allah is today. Why is that? Did the medieval English miss a trick, or were they just not as stupid as we are? “My name for the #1 god of the world is the True Name, and if you don’t agree I will kill you and all your babies.” Even in our isolated little parish of Cayman we can see the awesome stupidity of that.

All the world’s torturers and mutilators believe their god is on their side. Well, fair enough; what’s a tribal god for, if not to be on the side of its priests and their congregations? Unfortunately, much of the torture and mutilation is done in the name of Gentle Jesus Meek and Mild, with Christian congregations praying their hearts out for more of the same while cursing the evil that is Allah. As we speak, there are eighty million Iranians waiting to be bombed out of existence by the agents of those congregations. We are asked to imagine Gentle Jesus wandering around preaching “nuke the bastards!” Not so meek, not so mild; just out for Allah’s blood.

Easter is a time to be thinking about such things. The spring equinox has been a religious born-again festival for many thousands of years. Its modern name derives from the last part of the name Zoroaster, an ancient Iranian god. By one of its variants, Aster, Istra, Ishtar, etc, it would have been the tribal god of the Hittite-era nation of Isuwa. My January blog posting The Children of Israel reckoned that Isuwa was the origin of the name Isra (-el), holy to Jews and Christians today.

Oh, the irony. Oh, how the gods must be laughing.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Cayman – warts and all

Last Tuesday at 11.30 in the morning, somebody in Switzerland was reading my “Checkpoint Charlie” posting of last December. Fancy that. I don’t even know anybody in Switzerland. What an amazing thing it is, to be able to track one’s online visitors, on such a basic blogsite as mine. The tracking is limited, of course; Switzerland is a big place.

My stats analysis doesn’t stretch to a Google Earth view of the man’s front door. In the whole of last week, he or she was my only visitor from Switzerland. There were twenty hits from Hong Kong and eight from Russia, of all places. Whoa! Are we talking KGB and the Chinese equivalent, or what?

Actually, the visitors are probably Western expats who belong to the same expat-blog.com that I joined recently. We read one another’s blogsites, those that look interesting. Some of the blog-portals on the Web have hundreds of members. Most of them are much younger than I am – boys and girls in their twenties, who post photos of beach parties and boating adventures.

Some forums are more serious – elderly folk looking for cheap places to retire, and middle-aged folk wondering where to store gold bars where their tax-men won’t find it. Many ask for information on local lifestyles, laws and customs.

Nearly all posters to the forums are anonymous – just like the posters on Cayman News Service’s forums. Most of my posts on this my own blog are about Cayman’s lifestyle, laws and customs – good and bad. The code of ethics for expat blogs requires that one tells the truth about one’s current home – warts and all, as they say. However, the only safe way to do that here in Cayman is to hide one’s identity.

In today’s CNS “Viewpoint” column, for instance, someone calling himself “Cayman Conscience” suggests that Cayman doesn’t need 15 elected MLAs. Of the forty people who have posted comments, all forty of them hid their identities. That pretty much says it all. Any expat who signed his name would risk deportation, any native Caymanian would risk being punished through the indentures-licensing system.

Still, fear can’t be the reason why most posters on international blogs and forums prefer anonymity. I’ve no idea why they do. I have (though not by choice) been a Daniel in the furnace, in Cayman, so there is no point in my hiding my identity. When Cayman’s political establishment sought to deport me (and my young son, for goodness sake) for the “crime” of opening the Chamber of Commerce’s office in 1986-88, my Directors’ intervention saved us.

When my Work Permit was pulled, a senior British Civil Servant was able to keep me on the Island. When, years later, the old establishment sought to cancel my Permanent Residency for writing an independent newspaper column, public support from the owners of the local TV station saved my bacon.

Censorship is a way of life here, for expats and ethnic Caymanians alike. Besides that, though, Cayman is a comfortable place for expats of all ages to live. The money is excellent compared with what’s available back home, wherever home is. Security of tenure is reasonable and fair for foreign workers with skills, provided the censorship rules are obeyed.

Foreign workers without skills risk being exploited by the indentured-labour system; they have limited civil rights. However, we have thousands of unskilled expats from Jamaica, the Philippines and the old British India. They don’t all get exploited; indeed, most employers treat their expats very fairly.

I expect the same applies in all places with an indentured-labour system. It’s rather shameful for a British colony to stand comparison with the Gulf dictatorships in permitting the exploitation of unskilled foreign labourers, but there it is.