Wednesday, July 29, 2009

"But what if honour pricks me off?"

Falstaff's speech on honour (Henry IV, Part I) was much in my mind after I received a frantic call from Matilda Hatt, my colleague in The Trade. She again was pushing the boundaries of the CIA, although I also knew that that organization wouldn't let her go. A crack shot, with superb martial arts skills, Tilly also had something exceedingly rare in bureaucracy -- imagination. In any event, she was calling from the Swat Valley in Pakistan, and wanted my help in re-locating some individuals. "They could," she tentatively suggested, "work in one of your sugar beet farms."

The individuals in question were four teen-age girls. According to Tilly, they had been badly battered, cut and bruised from being caught in a crossfire during Pakistan's attack upon The Taliban.

"Tilly," I said, "there were hundreds like that. Why these four?"

Tilly explained in an anger-tinged voice that, when found cowering under a large rock, the girls had then been treated for their injuries by a team from Medicins Sans Frontieres. They were now in good health, but couldn't return to their village.

I thought for a minute, then got it. "I suppose, Tilly, that they were treated by a male doctor."

"Bingo, Simone. No relative was anywhere near their location. If they return home, the village elders, those wise paragons of justice and mercy, will order their death, likely by stoning. The family's honour has been called into question, and word has it they've already dug four stoning pits."

"Well," I replied, "given this situation, a number of things are called into question, but honour isn't one of them." A plan began to form in my mind. "Tilly, they will need visas."

"Already taken care of. Your boss, Sir Harry --"

"Sir Harry?"

"Oh, hadn't you heard? The Queen tossed a bauble to him. For services rendered to the United Kingdom."

"No shit. Will wonders never cease. Now Tilly, here's what I propose."

The plan was to send the girls off to the UK, to the government run project exploring the sugar beet as an alternate fuel. This would necessitate a call to the now Sir Harry. It went as follows.

"Why?" he said. Harry's telephone skills left much to be desired.

"It's Ernestine," I said, using my usual code name. "Congrats on the knighthood."

"You wouldn't tie up a secure line for that."

"I need a favour."

"Good. So do I. A big one." (It was, but that's for another day.)

I explained the situation, and reluctantly he agreed to employ the girls until they could be comfortable in English society.

"And they will need an Urdu-speaking mentor."

He replied, "And no doubt a personal trainers, their own cooks, plus some fashion designers --"

"Stop it. And this is a good thing you do. An honourable thing."

"Well, I did make the Queen's Honour List after all."

He had a point. There is honour, and then there is cultural crap masquerading as honour. Even Falstaff could work out the difference.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

The Perils of Politics

A gloomy day outside, cold, with a driving rain that slashed across the mullioned windows of my study. The summer of 09 is resembling more and more the coming of a new ice age, and I am informed by a reliable meteorological source that the ice has only recently left Hudson's Bay and that the polar bear population is on the rise. Must call Al Gore and ask where his calculations went astray.

Given the mess outside, I was content to work on a paper I had been asked to give to the movers and shakers in the American Republican Party. My working title was "Then And Now", and described in detail just how far the Republicans had strayed from their original roots -- the importance of self-responsibility, the firm divide between church and state, small but effective (and transparent) government, and a tax system that was as loophole free as it could be, with a form that ran to no more than three pages.

Definitely, I thought, a recipe for future electoral success, although I did make the point that this would take some time to bring about. For instance, the rabid screaming of Sean Hannity, Ann Coulter and Rush Limbaugh (to name three) had to be curtailed, something unlikely to occur overnight. At present, they do their party no good at all.

At this point my private line flashed. Since only four people knew the number, my interest was piqued. And then I was talking to a rather distraught Michelle Obama.

"Simone, this health care thing is horrible. People are saying all kinds of untrue things, and Barack at times despairs."

"Well, I never said it's going to be easy. It took some time to occur in Canada as well."

"And that's another thing," she continued. "His critics are accusing him of bringing in Canadian health care, and calling him a socialist. He's not. Really."

"Michelle, there's nothing wrong with a bit of socialism -- it actually can temper some of the raw edges of capitalism. But that's another issue. As for the harsh criticism, you must remember that he is aiming a dagger right at the heart of the health insurance and pharmaceutical companies. They will not go down without a fight. For now, however, I would ask you to emphasize to Barack the importance of the Tenth Amendment."

"The Tenth Amendment? What do residual powers....oh, I see. Like your Mr. Douglas." (One smart lady, this.)

"Exactly. Just ensure that the public health option is included in the final bill, but under Tenth Amendment provisions. That way each state can decide whether to opt in to a public option, and receive appropriate financing to do so. This might even draw some Republican votes, given that party's love of states rights. Of course, it won't play in Alabama or Mississippi, but it might in Vermont. Or even that promoter of gay marriage, Iowa. And once one or two states opt in, you're on your way. Up here, it was first Saskatchewan. Soon after, when the Saskatchewan hospitals and doctors realized that they weren't doomed, that they could survive, even prosper, other provinces followed suit, and the Federal Government shortly had no choice but to bring in a country-wide plan.

"Simone, that's a hell of an idea --"

"Oh, I suspect it has surfaced in Barack's mind as well. Might get a little more emphasis, though."

"I hear you. But those damn critics..."

"Nonsense. My critics have issued a fatwa that calls for my torture and beheading. So let it go. Although I do have a definition of a critic that might help."

"I'm all ears."

"A critic is a virgin who wants to teach Casanova how to make love."

"Oh, I like that."

"Thought you would."

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Occasionally, You Win One

Bohdan, my Ukrainian sugar beet supervisor, called me to give an update on the various plantations scattered hither and yon about the planet. He should have been safely ensconced in Kiev, but this call was from Kandahar, something that gave me a jolt. Bohdan is brilliant at sugar beet nurture and growth, but AK 47's and I.E.D.'s are way beyond his remit. He replied that one must go where the sugar beet goes, as in the Frankie Laine song.

"Rubbish," I replied. "And the song was about wild geese, not sugar beets."

"Well, it sort of rhymes --"

"Stop it. Now what has happened?"

It turns out that the sugar beet project was doing extremely well. It is located outside the village of Deh-e-Bagh, south of Kandahar in the Dand district of Afghanistan. It got (pardon the term) its seed funding from Canada and Germany. Mind you, this took a bit of backing and filling. Originally CIDA, the Canadian international aid group, wanted to encourage Afghans to grow ginseng. When I got wind of this through Code Barry (see missives, passim) I used my not inconsiderable influence to bring this insane idea to an abrupt halt. Ginseng is difficult to tend and grow in the best of circumstances, to say nothing of the fact that the minute it is planted, it begins to kill itself. Sort of a mantra for CIDA, but I digress.

Long story short, after a quick conversation with the PM, the good Stephen Harper snarled down the blower, and soon CIDA officials were purchasing sugar beet seedlings like mad (I actually marked down the price somewhat -- we must all do our bit).

The Afghans who would be doing the actual planting and tending needed, and deserved, good wages. To underwrite these, I turned to Angela Merkel, who had really appreciated my help in getting the gas flowing again after that silly tiff between Yuliya Tymoshenko and Vladimir Putin. (And no, the woman still trots about wearing that braid.) I explained the situation to Angela, as well as reminding her that the German soldiers posted in the calm north of the country weren't actually doing much more than lazing about. She said I exaggerated, but was not averse to making a further contribution. So good wages came about.

As the project, approved and sanctioned by the village elders, began to grow, it naturally came to the attention of the Taliban. Horrified that a village was succeeding on its own, was enjoying the experience, and was actually creating wealth, they launched a suicide attack and an ambush. What is remarkable is that the Afghan National Army repelled the attack all on its own, wiping out several insurgents at the cost of one Afghan soldier who died, not in battle, but in a rifle mis-fire.

Bohdan, along with the Canadian commander stationed in the area, witnessed the whole thing.

After the attack, the villagers swelled with pride. This they had done by themselves, and it is this sort of thing that gives hope to the whole enterprise.

Nevertheless, I ordered Bohdan to get his ass back to Kiev as quickly as possible. Winning one small battle doesn't win the war, and the village would now be seen by the Taliban as a much greater threat than anything American marines could pose. I hope the Powers That Be see this as well.

A final comment. It is a truism that if Afghanistan is to succeed as a state, it is the Afghans themselves that will bring it about. In every state, in every nation, it has always been thus.

You go for it, Iran!

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Not The Garb Age

Arrived back in Toronto, having trod the primrose path of dalliance in France, as well as being booted out of Turin. My son Mark was visiting, he who delights in hurtling down fearsome icy slopes on two sticks. The Vancouver Olympics loom, and he had persuaded Irving to give him some physical training suited to skiing. Since Irving works with me on training related to a somewhat different purpose, but still hard physical activity, I wondered whether Mark knew what he was getting himself into. Perhaps Irving will knock some sense into him. Or maybe break a leg -- that would do for the Olympics, and he would be safe. So go the musings of a mother.

Mark did raise a question, however, and one that demanded some thought.

"Ma, how come there's a garbage strike in Toronto? The Mayor is, or so everyone says, slightly to the left of Lenin, and is usually best buds with his union pals. But this time he's holding fast. So how come?"

How come indeed. And it was ironic that the point I had made in Turin, that a strike should only involve two parties, not an innocent third, was occurring right on my doorstep. Not that the Manor was affected -- owing to some excellent legislative grandfathering, the Manor was in an area of the city that still used transparent tendering and commercial pickup, saving millions in the process. But I digress.

Mark's question was well taken. The thing didn't make sense. I poured a serious Laphroaig, and pondered, using the key analytical question that is always germane -- who benefits?

At first glance, no one: neither the union, nor the Mayor (who was taking considerable electoral heat) and certainly not the benighted taxpayers. I was momentarily at a loss, and decided to call in some help.

The help came from my friend/enemy Don Guido, who knew a thing or two about waste management.

"Ah, bella," he said in gutteral tones, "how goes la dolce vita? Perhaps you and I --"

"Will keep things as they are," I said crisply. (You have to be careful with Guido). "What's this garbage strike all about?"

"You buying that acreage in Caledon for sugar beets?"

This change of subject was not unexpected. If Guido was going to give me something, he was going to get something in return. Altruism and Guido were unknown in combination.

"I might if the price is right."

"I will see that it is," he replied. "As for the garbage nonsense, I have nothing to do with it. They're not my people, and anyway, I would have handled it--ah -- quite differently."

"I don't doubt that for a minute," I replied. "But what's really going on?'

There was a pause, and then he said "Streetcars."

"Streetcars? What the hell do --"

"Aspet, signora, aspet. I've given you enough. And the price for the land will be fair. Ciao."

And that was that.

I sat back, sipped, and thought. I then rummaged through some files, made some further calls, and managed to crack the mystery.

Toronto, via the Mayor, had agreed to purchase a goodly number of new streetcars from Bombardier, signed the contract, and everything would be fine save for one thing. Toronto didn't have the money. The Mayor had put in some, the Province more, and the Feds -- nothing. (I should mention that the current Conservative federal government hasn't managed to elect a member from Toronto in years -- why would they be keen on supporting the city in anything?)
But the Mayor, insanely, had thought that the Tories would be all embarrassed and cough up the dough.

The Tories decided to be embarrassed.

So a monetary shortfall had to be met, or the Mayor, along with his inner cabal, could find themselves in a nasty court fight, one that would appal the electorate. To top it all off, an election was due in 2010. The answer was to save money that would normally go to garbage collection. If the strike could be made to last until mid-to-late August, the shortfall could be greatly eased, if not erased entirely. Such are politics today.

I had thought originally that the Mayor was being frighted by false fires. Not so.

This time the fires are real.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Perverse Parallels

On my way back from Turin, I took the opportunity to visit the Compte de Rienville at his chateau in the south of France. He had heard about my little speech to the ILO.

"Run out of town, were you?" he kindly stated.

"Sort of. I thought logic and sanity would carry the day. I was wrong."

"Well," he said, "if you argue with a reformer, you will always lose. C'est la vie."

"C'est la guerre would be more appropriate. But enough of this."

Thus started a wonderful weekend, and resting up after one of our romps, enjoying a magnificent Chardonnay, the Compte raised an interesting topic. "Have you noticed, cherie, the parallel between the financial mess and the rise of vampires in film, television and books?"

"Can't say that I have." What the hell was he talking about?

He explained, and the subject was explored throughout the weekend. Truth be known, things got a little out of hand, and the Compte has the bite marks to prove it. But let us not stray from the point.

The gist of his argument goes as follows. Just about the time that organizations such as Citibank, AIG and Lehman Bros. were ramping up, one of the most popular shows on television was Buffy The Vampire Slayer. Now I actually got hooked on that show, because of a brilliant subtext. An example is worth repeating.

In an early episode, Buffy (the winsome Sarah Michelle Geller) is receiving an assignment back from Giles, the school librarian (Anthony Head, now slumming around in the BBC series Merlin, where he plays Uther Pendragon, about as far from a librarian as you can get.) Anyway, Giles hands the paper back to Buffy, saying 'And, Miss Summers, I really can't critique your use of pure reason.' Wow! (Kant himself, however, must have turned a bit in his grave.)

To continue the Compte's argument, things progressed in the real world, or rather went downhill. We had the insane growth of unsupervised swaps, collateral debt options, and shaky derivatives, all this accompanied by a staggering growth in sub-prime mortgages and that kindly personage known as Bernie Madoff. A huge and fragile pack of cards that could do nothing but tumble down. Which, of course, it did.

At the same time, in the media universe, we got John Carpenter's Vampires, Blade Runner, and the Underworld (rather silly) series. Even teen-agers were drawn in with the publication of the Twilight books, and the recent eponymous film. The most recent entry into this dark catalogue is the HBO series, the somewhat grisly True Blood. This is also one I watch, for the subtext, as in Buffy, is hilarious. The central plot hook rests on the fact that the Japanese (who else?) have invented a blood substitute that vampires can subsist on. This "true blood" is not as nourishing as the real thing, but a goodly number of vampires (not all) have emerged from the closet and are fighting for a place in society. As for the subtext, we learn that the state of Vermont just passed legislation that allows vampire/non-vampire marriages, and we also learn that Brad and Angelina are in the process of adopting a vampire baby. You see what I mean?

The Compte does not see this vampire fascination as an accident, and posited that unconsciously society knew damn well what was happening. He pointed out that government is very careful to outsource blood donations, it being a bit too close to the bone; that is, government literally taking blood from their citizens. Yet, he stated, the financial blood was metaphorically sucked out of the system. "They were nothing but vampires", he said heatedly. "Vampires! And we knew it."

I had my doubts, but then a further insight came to me that supported his thesis. What do we call all those beholden to financial firms and like organizations?

We call them stakeholders, that's what.