Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Solidarity Not So Forever

My sugar beet plantations appear to have attracted some notice. Not the plantations themselves, mind you, but the relationship I have established with those who actually tend the beets. Apparently Strunsky Enterprises came out on top of a poll conducted by the International Labour Organization (ILO) involving the degree of satisfaction felt by the workers towards management. I was thus invited to give a paper on just how such a high level of worker satisfaction was attained. The paper would be presented at the ILO's International Training Centre in Turin.

I was glad to accept. I had not been to Italy for some time, not since a rather nasty incident involving the takedown of an Albanian gang trafficking women out of a house in a back street of Naples. The gang's crude motto was "See nipples and die", and I was happy to bring about some reality to the last word in the motto.

So it was off to Turin, along with Irving, who was always ever mindful of certain contracts out on yours truly. I stayed, of course, at the Meridien Lingotto. I mean, who wouldn't? Wonderful place, and the finest osso buco in the world.

I wore my little black dress (Thank you, Coco!) which may have been a mistake. The Italian official who introduced me, after mentioning my sugar beet business, went on to mention my four children and, staring pointedly at my breasts, allowed that I was truly a bella figlia of the Labour Movement. This could be taken in a variety of ways, but one should always give Italians some leeway.

The presentation started off well. I stressed the importance of workers uniting to achieve an honest wage, safe working conditions and sane benefits. I got a round of applause from the European participants by pointing out that the first recorded strike was organized by the weavers of Douai in 1245. Thus Europe had led the way. I also gave credit to the brave efforts of the miners in Wales and England, quoting some passages from Orwell's Down The Mine for effect. This was well received by the Brits.

The Americans in the audience came to life when I referred to the work of such Labour luminaries as Eugene Debs and John L. Lewis, and I ended this section with a tribute to the Industrial Workers of the World, better known as "The Wobblies". I even quoted the lines from the Joe Hill song:"But Joe, you're ten years dead. " / "I never died, said he."

So things were going swimmingly. Then the shit hit the fan.

I had stressed the power of a strike when a firm or business is maltreating its workers. The workers suffer financially, but so does the firm, and pressure builds inexorably to one of two conclusions. Either a deal is reached, or the firm goes out of business. Ninety-nine times out of a hundred, a deal is reached.

The process goes off the rails, however, when those workers work for government. A strike in the public area hurts the workers, but more importantly the public, who really aren't involved at all. The government is not hurt financially, and indeed may gain. The duality of management and labour is now compromised by a third party. This is akin to kidnapping an innocent for ransom, and holding that person powerless. The way out is that if you are going to work for the public, then you must accept that the right to strike disappears, and is replaced by a binding arbitration process. The arbiter, of course, must be acceptable to both union and management, and strategies such as publicizing the job action and 'work to rule' can, and should, be used. But a strike? Never.

Well, you must have thought I had summoned all the demons from hell. . First, a stony silence, then a cascade of boos and hisses, interspersed with terms such as "fascist" and "aristocratic bitch". My Italian host tried to quiet the crowd, but to no avail. Didn't matter -- I was done anyway.

At this point an overlarge (I am being kind here) Frenchwoman stormed onto the stage, and this brought a vision of Dickens' Madame Defarge to mind. She was screaming something about my having forgotten the true doctrine of union thought. The crowd had gone silent, intrigued by this frontal attack, although I suspect only some understood her French.

I looked closely at this personage, and caught a flicker of fear in her eyes -- she could recognize, as most can, when someone has killed.

"Doctrine, you say?" I responded in French. "Doctrine? Madame, I direct you to one of your esteemed authors, Michel de Montaigne, and I paraphrase from that fine mind: 'The doctrine which you have learned could not reach your mind so that it has stayed on your tongue.'" Then I turned to my host and said in his language, "La commedia e finita!"

Which it was.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

The Power of a Sliver

I am not a fan of Twitter -- only 140 characters allowed. Not enough. Could you imagine Plato delivering The Republic as a series of tweets? But I do have an account, with the address known to a very select few. Thus I received the following tweet from Michelle Obama: "Barack worried about his health sliver. Any suggestions?"

What Michelle was referring to was her husband's position on reforming American health care. He wanted a "sliver" of the Health Bill currently being debated by Congress to contain a public health option. This would be funded and administered by the government, and be open to all who wished to sign up. Participants would pay a pro-rated tax, and including such an option would go some distance to ensuring full health coverage for all Americans. All other plans run by insurance companies would stay operational, but they would have to compete.

This whiff of competition, of course, was viewed by the insurance companies, the HMO's and the American Medical Association much as an Orthodox Jew would view a person eating a ham sandwich at the Wailing Wall. Intense lobbying immediately ensued, and Senators began to collapse right and left. All those campaign contributions, you see.

Yet not all is lost. A recent New York Times / CBS poll indicated that 85% of Americans overwhelmingly support substantial changes to their health care system. Well, why wouldn't they? America, after all, is 37th in the world in health care success, just behind Morocco, if the WHO is anything to go by. A smaller percentage (72%) stated that the government could do a better job of holding down health care costs than the private sector.

Those opposed to the public option, if not super intelligent, are at least cunning. If a public option is part of the Bill, and is successful, then in order to compete, or even to exist, their profit-taking mind-set would have to be radically altered, and altered downwards. That, to be sure, is horror itself. Affordable drugs? Less unneeded and expensive tests? Not worth thinking about, even if savings could reach $3 trillion by 2020, as estimated by one economist in the Los Angeles Times.

So the fight will be fierce. In this regard I sent Michelle two tweets.

1) If the Bill reaches his desk with no public option, veto it.

2) Google Tommy Douglas.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Stirrings in Iran

Occasionally, you win one. I have learned since my chat with Mr. Wen at the Chinese Consulate that an invitation was extended by China to Kin Jong Un, the youngest son of the Dear Leader, Kin Jong Il. He accepted, and is now in the process of (one hopes) getting an earful from North Korea's firmest ally. The youngest Kim has an education and has travelled internationally, and may just be conducive to bringing his nation one or two steps closer to sanity. We will see.

I had just started to plan a dinner party for the Clintons, who were in town and wanted my input on bringing a sane health plan to the U.S.A. without having a "single payer" system. This would be an impossibility, but the conversation would be worth having. However, the process was interrupted by an excited call from Matilda Hatt, my colleague in the CIA. Tilly was all agog about developments in Iran.

"Isn't it wonderful, Simone!" she exclaimed. "They're becoming a democracy!"

Oh dear, I thought. Tilly has gone overboard again. I mean, the woman is crackerjack in the field with an M16, but geopolitics is another thing entirely. I had to, not without some sadness, disabuse her. The following contains the gist of my remarks.

Tilly had likened the Iranian post-election clamour to that of Lech Walesa's activities in the Gdansk shipyard and referred as well to the coming down of the Berlin Wall. This argument doesn't hold. Iran is not Poland or East Germany (neither has an oil field) and Communism is not Islam.

Iran is, at the present moment, a theocracy, and the people involved with disputing the recent election of Ahmadinejad are up against the words of Iran's leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenai, who characterized the results of the election as "divine". In effect, then, any person who takes issue with this is disputing Mohammed's mouthpiece, a step not far from disputing the word of Mohammed himself. (Allah appears to be silent on all this.) Therefore, unless all the disputers have suddenly seen the light and become atheists, something unlikely in the extreme, the result will hold. Sorry, Tilly.

Moreover, I tend to believe that Ahmadinejad actually won the election. The man is enormously popular in rural areas, where the populace is much more conservative than those living in urban areas, and where his semi-insane fundamentalism is well-received. Also, he handed out free potatoes. Who can resist that?

There are, however, some interesting stirrings that are occurring. One is the Mullah's ignorance of modern electronic communication in the form of Facebook, YouTube and Twitter. It must have astounded them that a rally could be held here or there on very short notice. How did all those citizens know the exact time and place? And all this stuff is flying around the world. The Taliban are a step ahead here, banning every form of communication.

The second interesting thing is that so many were prepared to confront the religious authorities. They are brave souls indeed, to start questioning "divine" edicts. In this context I recall words from my great aunt Maud, who was worried about my tendency to question the validity of organized religion. "Well, Simone," she said, "just remember, if you're going to kill God, be sure you do it on the first blow."

Finally, I think the challenger, Mir Hossein Mousavi, will survive -- he is now too well known around the world, and the Mullahs are all too conscious of the power of a martyr. (I worry more about his wife, who had the guts to campaign publicly for her husband. Given the vicious nature of the thugs who comprise the Islamic militia, the Basij, along with the creeps who make up the Revolutionary Guard, well, I worry for her.)

Tilly's response to all this?

"Well, Simone, you could be wrong. I think they're going to pull it off."

Deep down, I wished that, just this once, to be wrong

But I'm not.

Friday, June 12, 2009

Orienting to the Orient

Outside in the Manor terrace, happily buried in Sir Thomas Browne's Discourse on Sepulchral Urns, I didn't hear the phone ring.

Irving did, came out, and handed me the receiver. His look told me that poor Sir Thomas was going to get short shrift.

I took the receiver, and heard one word: "Ernestine."

Shit! I thought. That was the code to place a call. Work. I left the terrace, and went to my office to use the secure line.


"The Chinese want to talk to you." Harry, my handler, always came right to the point.

"Do I want to talk to them?"

"You do. And soon."

"Visas," I replied, "particularly that visa, take time."

"Won't be necessary. They have arranged a meeting in Toronto. At the Consulate. It's on St. George --"

"I know where it is. When?"

"Tonight. At eight o'clock. You will be met by a Mr. Wen."

"I would have thought at the least it would be Hu Jintao."

"Always the idiotic remark." Harry had never appreciated anything approaching a lightness of touch. He continued, "But go there alone, and leave that Mossad butler of yours at home."

"Which could mean that I won't get back to home."

"You will. This has been discussed. Oh, and wear something pretty. Mr. Wen is drawn to the female figure."

"Harry, what a sexist thing -- " But the line had gone dead.

Irving, of course, was determined to accompany me. We compromised on his being somewhere in the area.

Following Harry's directions, I took a bit more time with my wardrobe. My Donna Karan black pencil skirt, with a silk Givenchy blouse, would do nicely. For shoes I chose the Milano Blahniks, the pair that that harridan at Chicago O'Hare had tried to scoff last month. I debated whether to insert my small Beretta into my bag -- Prada of course -- but decided against it. Harry would have warned me if all wasn't on the up and up, and his information tended to be accurate. Not many have deceived Harry, and those that did have lived to regret it.

Ahmed drove me to the Consulate, dropped me off, and went to park somewhere to await a call from me to get picked up. As I approached the Consulate, I looked around for Irving, but of course he was nowhere to be seen. But I knew he was there.

I was welcomed in by an elderly gentleman, and taken to a meeting room somewhere towards the rear of the building. There I was greeted by a person who introduced himself as Mr. Wen. He appeared older than the man who had shown me in, and I wondered if the Chinese diplomatic corps had a policy of not allowing anyone to serve until they had been properly aged. Like cheeses.

"Ah, Lady Simone," he began "a real pleasure. Please, sit down." He took the adjacent chair, and looked me up and down, looks that would be more appropriate at a slave auction.

"Mr. Wen," I replied, ignoring his ogling, "I understand you wished to see me. Might I enquire what it is about?"

"You Westerners always want to rush things," he sighed. "However, when in Rome -- what do you know about North Korea?"

The question was so abrupt I was momentarily off-guard. "Uh, not a great deal. It's not a place to visit or vacation in."

"But you have visited. A year ago, if I have it right."

Had Harry let this slip? I doubted it. More likely this was straightforward intelligence work by the Chinese themselves. In any event, there would be little point in denying the matter.

"I may have spent a minuscule amount of time there."

"And wrote a report. This is a copy. Your employers were good enough to make it available."

Good Lord, so it was Harry after all. Wonder what he got in return?

"Well," I said, "if you've seen the report, why this meeting?"

"To clarify one or two things. And to get any further advice you may care to offer. Our government is aware of some of your -- activities -- and is impressed."

"I can't wait to get a card of commendation from President Hu."

"Our information also mentions that you are a bit of a smart ass, but let that pass. What we are interested in is any further thoughts that you have had on the situation, or information that might not have been in your report."

I thought for a moment.

"There were only two items I withheld," I said, "on the grounds they were ludicrous. One was the fact that Kim Jong Il, the Dear Leader, plays with Barbie dolls. The other was his huge crush on Jennifer Aniston. This didn't seem to be of earth-shaking importance."

"You may have erred there. But things are, how do you say, heating up. I would be interested in what suggestions you might have to, er, relieve things somewhat."

There are several things the People's Republic might do. All of them dangerous. You must realize that the Dear Leader is bat-shit crazy --"

"What? I don't understand the term."

"He's loco. Deranged. Therefore, my first and really only suggestion is to deal with the generals that surround him. They've got to be worried as well, and they can't all be as nuts as Kim. You do have contact with some of the generals, surely. God knows we don't."

"It's an avenue we have been looking at."

I crossed my legs, which got his full attention. "Do more than look, " I stated. "Much more. And that's really all I can give you. Now some tea would be nice. Oolong."

"Certainly. You have been most helpful. You know, should you ever decide to settle down in the East --"

"Doubtful. I am content right here. And I remember my Kipling."

"How so?"

I'm sure you know the lines, and I recited:

"At the end of a flight is a tombstone, with the name of the late deceased;
And the epitaph drear: 'A fool lies here, who tried to hustle the East.'"

He nodded, rose, and said."I'll arrange for the tea. And Lady Simone, I really don't think you're a hustler."

I thought, don't be too sure of that, Mr. Wen.

Saturday, June 6, 2009

Politics Today: Of Miscues and Moats

I'm a bit late getting back from my Slavic sojourn, but a side-trip to Paris, and the Compte de Rienville, intervened. These things happen.

Thank God. Or perhaps Aphrodite. But let us not stray into prurience.

I needed some quiet time, and was just starting to relax with Brahm's 2nd when some items in the newspaper caught my attention. What on earth are the politicians up to?

First, the British House of Commons, where I read of MP's flipping houses, obtaining porn, and (although this almost beggars belief) cleaning moats. All courtesy of the beleaguered British taxpayer. Now I have thought of a moat to ward off the uninvited, but cleaning the damn thing would prove a bit expensive. If, however, the government would look after this....hmm, must raise the issue with The Mayor. He won't bite, of course, but just might succumb to a fit of apoplexy. One can only hope.

I gather poor Gordon Brown is going to soldier on, although Ministers are dropping like flies. Where is Sir Humphrey Appleby when you need him?

In Canada, things have taken a different turn. The Canadian Parliament is still recovering from the unholy machinations of Jean Chretien and the mammoth "Adscam" scandal, and expense account nonsense tends to stay under the radar, at least for now. No, the problem here is one of "leaving things behind." Things such as top secret documents. Maxime Bernier, Minister, left just such a document at his mistress' s apartment. Not good, but at least understandable, given how things happen in the heat of the moment, so to speak. What is more baffling is the behaviour of a competent Minister, Lisa Raitt, who also left top secret documents. Not at any one's apartment, but at a national television network. This requires some thought.

First, Stephen Harper, Prime Minister, is more than a little anal-retentive, and probably wants any and every document to have a top secret label. In his view, freedom of information requests are better described in terms of freedom from information. So any document left lying around -- well, you get the picture.

Still, this doesn't explain leaving documents at a television station. So...a puzzle, and in The Trade, whenever we are faced with a puzzle, one of the ways into the enigma is to raise the question, "Who benefits?" Now things become a bit clearer.

The documents Minister Raitt left behind were pretty mundane, dealing as they did with cost overruns at Canada's Atomic Energy Commission. Canadians, unless vacationing on Mars, knew all about this, although not the exact figure. That figure was going top come out at some point, and what better way than to come out side by side with a massive diversion. Her Majesty's Loyal Opposition, and all the media, immediately fell into the trap. The heat was on, not on the documents themselves, but on the way they had become public. It didn't hurt as well that Lisa Raitt is one of Harper's more attractive Ministers, and both the Opposition and the media take an unbecoming delight in pillorying a pretty woman.

The clincher to this argument resides in the fact that while the unfortunate Maxime Bernier was dropped like a hot potato, Lisa Raitt's offer to resign was swiftly turned down by Harper. (An aside -- at the recent election, Bernier was re-elected with a huge plurality. Quebec understands mistresses).

So there you have it. Or at least my take on the situation. And yes, I have my doubts, but I also remember my Voltaire: "Doubt is not a pleasant position, but certainty is absurd."

Until next time.